There is no known way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease and other related dementias. However, there are actions that one can take to reduce the risk for dementia and, in some cases, slow the progression of the disease. These factors include:
Some factors may decrease the effect of brain damage due to dementia by developing more connections between the remaining brain cells, rather than preventing damage. With more connections between brain cells, function can be maintained longer despite damage to the brain.
There is a connection between eating a heart healthy diet and having a healthy brain. A healthy diet that includes fruit, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, poultry, fish, and legumes may reduce the risk of developing dementia. In addition, red meat, sugar, and saturated fats should be limited in one’s diet. 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 and Parkinson’s disease (Scarmeas et al, 2009). Another diet, Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH), may also be beneficial in preventing dementia, 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 limited 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. Other foods that may protect against dementia include curcumin, the main ingredient in the spice turmeric, and omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish.
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. 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.
The same factors that protect against heart disease help reduce some of 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 and reducing stress.
Stimulation of the mind increases the number and strength of connections between the brain cells, strengthens the brain cells one has, and even increases the number of brain cells slightly. 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.
Head injury, particularly repeated concussions, is associated with an increased risk for dementia. Protect your head with helmets during sports, wear seat belts, eliminate tripping hazards in one’s home, and avoid sports and situations that involve possible repeated injury to the head.
Older people who engage in regular social activities show less cognitive decline. One reason for this effect is that social activities promote new connections between brain cells. From volunteering to going to a local senior center to weekly outings with friends, there are many ways for one to socialize.