While there is no known way to prevent Alzheimer’s or related dementias, one can reduce the risk, in some cases, slow the progression of the disease by making lifestyle changes. As we describe below, some healthy habits fight dementia by developing more connections (synapses) between brain cells (neurons), rather than preventing damage. With more connections between brain cells, functions like memory and physical movement can be maintained longer despite damage to the brain.
There is a clear, proven connection between eating a heart-healthy diet and having a strong brain. A healthy diet that reduces the risk of developing dementia includes the following:
– whole grains
On the other hand, red meat, sugar, and saturated fats should be limited in one’s diet. Other foods that may protect against dementia include curcumin, the main ingredient in the spice turmeric, and omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish.
The Mediterranean diet is marked by a high intake of olive oil, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fish and poultry, and is associated with a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Studies have shown clear differences between the brains of people who eat Mediterranean versus a regular American diet. Researchers in one instance found more beta-amyloid proteins (known to build up in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease) in the brains of people who eat traditional American foods than in brains of those on the Mediterranean diet. Also, more overall brain activity occurs for people who stick to only healthy foods.
Another diet, Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH), may also be beneficial in preventing dementia, according to another study, and emphasizes a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and dairy foods that are low in fat. A fair amount of whole grains, nuts, poultry, and fish is also encouraged.
There is some evidence that a diet high in fruits and vegetables protects brain neurons (cells) from chemicals, called free radicals, which damage cells. The protective chemicals in these foods are called antioxidants or, more specifically, flavonoids. Flavonoids are found in colorful foods, and their protective qualities for the brain have been shown in studies linking consumption of berries and other flavonoids with improved thinking. Brains that are fed by these healthy diets have seen nerve cell growth in crucial areas (including the hippocampus, which controls memory) and increased blood and oxygen flow to the brain.
Regular physical exercise leads to a healthier brain by increasing the flow of oxygen and blood, just as it leads to better health for the rest of the body. Exercise and physical activity improve cognitive performance and reduce cognitive decline. After 6 to 12 months of exercise, according to studies, connectivity between regions of the brain was shown in MRI scans to be improved. Learning was easier. Seniors with dementia who exercise do better on cognitive scores than seniors who are less active.
Exercise helps the brain fight dementia in two ways: by protecting neurons and by increasing oxygen and blood flow. The bottom line is that regular exercise can delay the onset of symptoms for someone in the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and improves memory and reasoning for people in middle and later stages.
The amount of exercise does not have to be extreme. Research has found that moderate activity levels (for example, exercising just 3 times a week) decrease the risk of developing dementia. The effect is increased with a greater variety of activities, and there appears to be a benefit even if exercise is started late in life. For tips on how to get your loved one moving, click here.
The same healthy habits that protect against heart disease also reduce the risk factors associated with dementia. These include, in addition to exercising and healthy eating:
– abstaining from smoking
– maintaining a healthy weight and normal blood glucose level
– controlling blood pressure and cholesterol
– relaxing to reduce stress
Studies have shown that people with better cardiovascular health in middle age are less likely to develop dementia than those who have not taken these simple steps to keep their hearts and blood flow stronger. More specifically, people who have poor cardiovascular health around age 50 have, on average, smaller brains as they enter their later years, and dementia has been shown to reduce the size of someone’s brain by as much as two-thirds.
Those at risk of developing vascular dementia (VaD) would particularly benefit from taking steps to improve their cardiovascular health, as VaD is caused by reduced or blocked blood flow to the brain. Every type of dementia, from Alzheimer’s to the rarer related diseases like Lewy body dementia or Huntington’s disease, is easier to manage if the heart is as strong as possible. Eating well and exercising regularly (see above) are the keys to better blood flow and reducing the risk of dementia, or managing its symptoms, so memory loss and changes in personality aren’t as bad.
Stimulation of the mind increases the number and strength of connections between brain cells, strengthens the brain cells themselves, and even slightly increases the number of brain cells. Examples of mental exercises that are particularly effective include solving puzzles, learning something new, reading challenging material, playing board games, playing a musical instrument, and dancing.
The evidence linking mental exercise to reduced risk of dementia, or more manageable dementia symptoms, is not as strong as the evidence linking diet, exercise, and heart health (described above) to better outcomes. In other words, physical exercise is more likely to help with dementia symptoms than mental exercise, based on studies. But while brain games are not linked to better outcomes specifically related to dementia, there is evidence to suggest that all people over 60 who regularly solve puzzles or do other similar activities have an easier time with normal tasks like organizing and cooking. This means that while there is not an established link between brain games and improved dementia symptoms, these thinking exercises can still provide some benefit.
Head injury, particularly repeated concussions, is associated with an increased risk for dementia. Studies have shown that just one head injury can lead to dementia later in life, and that the risk of developing dementia increases with the number of head injuries someone sustains (even as a youth). Someone with two or more head injuries at some point in life is twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s or a related dementia as someone with no history of head injury.
Ways to reduce the chances of head injuries that increase the potential for developing dementia later in life:
– wear helmets during sports
– wear seat belts
– eliminate tripping hazards in one’s home
– avoid sports (including horseback riding, hockey, and football) that involve possible repeated injury to the head
Older people who engage in regular social activities show less cognitive decline, according to studies. Spending time with friends helps the brain by making a person less stressed and more motivated to have healthy habits like playing games and being physically active. On a cellular level, social activities promote new connections between brain cells.
Activities that encourage socialization and help keep the brain engaged include:
– Volunteering at a local senior center, homeless shelter, or animal rescue
– Joining a walking group
– Joining a book club
– Games for groups, like Bingo
– Art classes
– Community gardening