The number of Alzheimer’s cases is steadily increasing. As of this year, 850,000 people in the UK live with dementia-related conditions like Alzheimer’s and researchers expect that number to increase to 1.6 million by the year 2040 (1). This encourages seniors to wonder how they can keep their brains healthy.
It’s not just seniors who need to protect their brains though. Early-onset Alzheimers, which generally affects people between the ages of 45 and 54, is on the rise. At present, about 5% of all people with Alzheimer’s are under the age of 65. (2)
Fortunately, there are lots of ways that you can protect your brain from Alzheimer's! This article outlines some preventative measures that will help you keep your brain in good shape as you enjoy your senior years.
What Is Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia that causes a number of cognitive problems. Alzheimer’s impairs memory, thinking, and behaviour. It is generally considered to be a progressive disease that worsens with age.
Alzheimer’s currently has no treatment, but there are steps you can take to slow its progression. To understand how you can prevent Alzheimer’s, it’s a good idea to form a basic understanding of what the disease actually is.
The Brain, Alzheimer’s Plaques & Tangles
The brain contains a seemingly infinite number of neurons (brain cells)which are interlinked with other neurons, forming complicated connections known as neural pathways.
These pathways allow for the formation of memories, the exchange of information, the perception of senses, and many other things. Diseases like Alzheimer's interfere with these neural pathways and prevent our brains from being able to function properly.
Researchers do not fully understand how Alzheimer’s impairs brain function. However, they have identified two abnormal brain structures that seem to play a role. These are known as amyloid plaques and tangles.
The Role of Amyloid Plaques and Tangles
The body contains a protein fragment known as beta-amyloid. When this protein builds up in between neurons, it creates amyloid plaques. (3) Amyloid plaques can interfere with our cognitive functioning.
Tangles are a separate obstruction created when fibres of the tau protein twist together. Tangles, too, interfere with communication among brain cells.
Everyone develops plaques and tangles as they age. In fact, plaques and tangles tend to accumulate in the human brain decades before symptoms of Alzheimer's can be detected. (4) However, higher levels of these buildups lead to a higher risk of Alzheimer’s.
How to Protect Your Brain and Fight Against Alzheimer’s
Exercise helps to maintain physical and mental health at all ages. It shows particular promise for helping to prevent the development of Alzheimer’s.
One study observes the effects of an exercise program known as the “Brain Gym” on Alzheimer’s patients. (5) The Brain Gym consists of stretching, mobility, and non-aerobic exercises. After 6weeks of following this program for 2 hours a day, the patients scored higher on tests of attention span and memory.
Another study noted that Alzheimer’s patients who regularly spent time walking or enjoying mild physical activity showed a slower decline in their cognitive ability. (6)
Regular socialising helps to optimise mental and emotional health. People who socialise frequently show a decreased risk of cognitive decline and symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
Using a variety of 19 different cognitive tests, a 2011 study observed the importance of socializing for seniors at risk of developing Alzheimer’s. (7) The study - which is still ongoing - began by following patients who showed no signs of cognitive impairment.
Over the course of the next 5 years, patients began to show signs of impairment. Patients who were more socially active experienced cognitive impairment 75% less than people who were less socially active.
Being social doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to spend all day out meeting people. Even spending 10 minutes each day making a few phone calls to a friend or family member can be enough to fill your social reservoir.
Get a Good Night’s Sleep
Lack of sleep is one of the highest risk factors for developing Alzheimer's. Throughout the day, the brain goes through a complex series of different metabolic processes. This leads to the regular buildup of metabolites in the brain.
One of the substances produced this way is beta-amyloid, which can form the amyloid plaques that contribute to Alzheimer’s. These compounds, which are produced through the normal activity of our brain cells, areremovedthrough our cerebrospinal fluid and interstitial fluid. (8) However, this clearance system only works while we are asleep.
That means that you need to make sure that you’re getting a good nights sleep every night. If you’re having trouble drifting off at night, try to figure out the root cause of your sleep problems. Exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, and meditating are good ways to help you fall asleep.
Studies have observed that losing as little as a single night’s sleep increases the total amount of beta-amyloid in the brain by 5%. (9) Long-term sleep deprivation, then, can seriously increase the risk of Alzheimer’s.
Keep Your Brain Engaged and Active
Cognitive activities and mental exercises help to slow the onset of Alzheimer's.
The earlier you start, the better. People who have received less education are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s. This study reveals an inverse dose-response relation between education and dementia - meaning that those who are better educated, and who have engaged their brains more throughout life, are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s. (10)
Another study aptly titled use it or Lose It, followed 250 middle-aged and older adults who were tested 3 times over a 6-year period. (11) The study noted that people who regularly engage in challenging intellectual activities show more resistance against cognitive decline.
Take some time out of your day to participate in engaging, intellectual activities. This could be something simple, like playing a crossword puzzle ora game of Sudoku. You could also tackle more dedicated activities, such as learning a new hobby or skill. The more you enjoy it the better. Books are also a great way to engage your brain and challenge it with new ideas.
Keep Your Heart Healthy
Keeping your heart healthy will help to slow the development of Alzheimer’s. One of the reasons for this is the strong link between heart health, cholesterol levels, and the buildup of amyloid plaques.
Studies reveal that higher levels of brain cholesterol lead to an increase in the production of amyloid-beta and the resulting amyloid plaques. (12)
Another study suggests that the byproducts of cholesterol oxidation may play a role. (13) These byproducts, known as oxysterols, are believed to interact with amyloid-beta peptides. Over time, this can speed up the formation of amyloid plaques and lead to the development of Alzheimer’s.
If you want to keep your heart healthy, make sure that you exercise regularly and eat heart-healthy foods rich in antioxidants.
Watch Your Stress Levels
Despite the widespread prevalence of stress, few people are aware of the serious dangers that it presents.
Stress has been linked to inflammation, illness, and impaired longevity. People living under heavy stress are believed to have their life expectancy reduced by as much as 2.8years. Stress also contributes to the development of inflammation and inflammatory illness. (14)(15)
Disease and illness can, in turn, cause more stress. This creates a cycle which Nicholas J. Justice refers to in his 2018 study as “the vicious cycle of Stress.” Stress leads to the formation of disease, which creates symptoms of stress, which in turn exacerbate the symptoms of the disease. (16)
Stress also directly influences the development of mental illness -including Alzheimer’s. Specific stress-related conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are linked to a two-fold increase in the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s. (17)
To help manage stress it’s important to take time out to focus solely on you and how you’re feeling. Things like meditation have been shown to directly reduce stress levels but there are many other ways so it’s important to find what works best for you. A recent study found that 20 minutes spent in nature with no distractions from technology had a significant effect on cortisol levels, cortisol is the hormone measured to determine stress. (18)
Other ways to manage stress include regular exercise and journaling. Putting pen to paper and decluttering the negative thoughts in your head can be a great way to look at things from a new perspective.
Fight Inflammation and oxidative stress
One of the best ways to prevent Alzheimer’s from developing is to reduce inflammation and oxidation - and, one of the easiest ways to do this is by watching what you eat.
Our diet can either help us or hinder us. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables will be rich in antioxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds, vitamins, and minerals that help to promote good health. Conversely, a diet filled with processed foods, inflammatory oils and sugar can promote disease.
Foods to Avoid
These are some foods that you should avoid if you want to stay in good health.
Sugars. Sugar has long been known to cause inflammation and is nothing more than sweet tasting empty calories. (19) If you must sweeten your tea coffee, try to use sweeteners with a lower Glycimex index like honey or natural sweeteners like Stevia and Xylitol. Avoid anything with glucose, corn syrup, or high-fructose corn syrup.
Processed foods. Highly processed foods are generally devoid of nutrients and filled with unhealthy compounds that can cause inflammation and oxidation.
Artificial trans-fats. Artificial trans-fats like margarine are linked to inflammation and disease. (20)
Vegetable oils. While soybean oil and canola oil may seem like healthier alternatives when compared to artificial trans-fats, they’re not risk-free. Vegetable oils often contain high levels of omega-6 fatty acids and are prone to oxidisation. Excessive intake of omega-6 fats can lead to inflammation without the right balance of Omega 3. (21)
Foods to Enjoy
These foods will help to keep your brain healthy and slow the development of Alzheimer’s.
Antioxidants aren’t food. Rather, they’re a type of molecule found within various types of food. Antioxidants help to prevent oxidation and thus help to reduce the onset of various diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.
Antioxidants can be found in abundance in fresh fruits and vegetables. Eating the rainbow of different coloured food is a great way to ensure you are getting a good range of antioxidants in your diet. Blueberries, Red Peppers, Green Spinach, Purple Beetroot, Orange Turmeric etc.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are incredibly important. Omega-3 deficiencies have been linked to brain dysfunction and the development of brain disease. (22)
Omega-3 fatty acids also play a big role in regulating our mental health. Some studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acids may have a potential role in managing degenerative mental health. (23)
Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in foods like oily fish, avocados, shellfish and grass fed dairy products. It can also be obtained from some seeds like hemp and Chia.
While there isn’t enough conclusive evidence to point to turmeric as a treatment for Alzheimer’s, the current research is promising. It’s also interesting to note that India has one of the lowest Alzheimer's rates and they commonly consume between 1g-3g of turmeric per day.
Turmeric is widely recognized for its inflammation-fighting abilities. It has shown powerful anti-inflammatory benefits and is considered as a potential substance for helping to improve symptoms of heart disease, neurodegenerative conditions, and immune disease. (24)
Turmeric has also been shown to help prevent the oxidation of LDL cholesterol in animals. (25) High levels of LDL cholesterol and oxidation have both been linked to Alzheimer’s.
Research has shown that curcumin, the active ingredient found in turmeric, can help to protect against amyloid-beta. (26) It has also been shown to help reduce the size of amyloid-beta plaques in animal models. (27)
Turmeric has also been shown to help improve memory in people of all ages. (28) Scientists are not yet sure how this mechanism works but it is a growing area of research.
It’s always good to end on a positive note!
Red wine might be the last thing that you’d expect to see on this list. Regardless, red wine has shown some potential for improving memory and fighting oxidation in patients with Alzheimer’s.
This is because red wine contains a highly potent antioxidant known as resveratrol. This antioxidant has been shown to help reduce the development of amyloid plaques. (29)
Moderation is key when it comes to alcohol but if you enjoy winding down with the occasional glass of red then you’re already on the right track!
Alzheimer’s disease is on the rise but there are many things you can do to protect yourself!