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6 Daily Habits That Can Reduce Your Risk for Alzheimer's Disease

Photo: Iain Bagwell

In your daily life, you can work to prevent mental decline by focusing on foods and lifestyle choices that can boost your brain health. These six habits are a good place to start.

Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia and the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. It's a progressive, irreversible disorder in which the brain's never cells degenerate, causing problems with memory, thinking, and behavior.

Strive to instill the six habits below into your daily routine as a way to prevent mental decline. In addition, we've included a helpful glossary of terms for those unfamiliar with forms of dementia and a tool kit for those interested in brain health for themselves or family members.

Limit Processed Foods

There's a strong connection between Alzheimer's and diabetes: Studies have shown that people who have type 2 diabetes may be twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's, potentially due to insulin resistance. Some scientists even refer to Alzheimer's as type 3 diabetes. According to experts at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, type 2 diabetes is almost always preventable through exercise and diet. Whether you have type 2 diabetes or not, the current consensus is that all individuals should try to reduce insulin resistance. The best way to do this? Limit added sugars, refined carbs, and processed foods; eat balanced meals that focus on lean protein and vegetables; and be active.

Get More Sleep

Lack of quality sleep increases levels of the protein that forms amyloid plaques, which in turn disrupts sleep patterns further. Make a point to get adequate sleep, and readjust your sleep patterns after deprivation or interruptions. "This is valuable time where the brain rids itself of collected debris. I like to say that this is where the janitor comes in and cleans after a busy day at the office," says Rebecca Katz, MS, author of The Healthy Mind Cookbook.

Build a Healthier Gut

Once considered an outlandish theory in alternative medicine, research now shows that gut bacteria communicate with the brain to influence metabolism, insulin response, mood, and behavior. Scientists call this the gut microbiome–brain axis, and the gut-brain relationship may be a huge factor in health.

While more research is needed, we do know that the typical American diet (refined foods, added sugars) disrupts the microbe balance in the gut and promotes inflammation in the body. It's this inflammatory imbalance that may be at the root of type 2 diabetes, depression, obesity, heart disease, and dementia. Populations with more diverse guts (like those found in people with a diet low in processed foods and high in fruits, vegetables, and fish) appear to have a lower prevalence of these conditions. This suggests that a nutritional approach may prevent, slow, or halt the progression of the disease. Much more research is needed (and underway) to hopefully provide a better understanding of the gut-brain relationship and how it impacts health.

Get Out and Get Moving

"Exercise actually promotes the growth of new brain cells, and this is most aggressively seen in the brain's memory center," says David Perlmutter, MD, neurologist and author of Grain Brain. "While stretching and weight training are great ideas, the science that shows exercise is good for the brain has focused on aerobics. As little as 20 minutes a day turns out to be associated with an almost 50% reduction in Alzheimer's risk."

How much physical exercise is ideal for keeping your brain healthy? "Aim for 40 minutes, three times each week," recommends Neal Barnard, MD, founder and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. "Aerobic exercise has been associated with an increase in the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is central to memory."

Exercise Your Brain

Don't forget mental exercise, too. Experts believe activities such as meditation and learning a new skill are important to brain health and longevity. New programs such as BrainHQ have been designed recently to challenge and train the brain (more online resources below).

What's more, Barnard advocates combining physical and cognitive exercise for increased benefits. "New research shows participating in physical exercise four hours after you learn new material may help you recall the information at a higher rate," Barnard says.

Be Social

Make interacting with others a priority as well. Paula Wolfert plans weekly social activities such as lunches on Tuesday and video chats with a group of fellow dementia advocates on Thursday. She visits the Sonoma farmers market twice a week.

"Having a sense of community and purpose may be the most important component in health and longevity," says Rebecca Katz, MS, author of The Healthy Mind Cookbook.

Glossary

  • Alzheimer's Disease - A type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking, and behavior due to a degeneration of brain cells. Symptoms typically develop slowly, worsen over time, and interfere with daily tasks.
  • Amyloid Plaques - These are abnormal deposits of proteins that build up around brain cells in people with Alzheimer's, disrupting communication between cells and leading to cell death.
  • Tangles - These are abnormal protein formations inside the brain cells of people with Alzheimer's that disrupt the communication between cells and contribute to cell death.
  • Antioxidants - These compounds occur naturally in foods and help prevent or stop damage caused by oxidants. Oxidants are free radicals created by the body during natural processes. Antioxidants clear these unwanted free radicals from the body.
  • Oxidative Stress - This is damage caused by an imbalance of too many free radicals and not enough antioxidants in the body; some oxidative stress is part of the natural aging process, but other oxidative stress can cause damage that is thought to lead to the development of cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer's, as well as other diseases.
  • Insulin Resistance - A condition in which the body produces insulin but does not use it effectively, causing a buildup of glucose in the blood. Untreated insulin resistance can lead to type 2 diabetes and may play a role in Alzheimer's.

A Tool Kit of Resources

If you think you or someone you know has symptoms of dementia, consult a neurologist to tailor a plan of action. The links below, including recommendations from Paula Wolfert, will help you stay abreast of the latest developments on dementia and cognitive function.

  • Alzheimer's News Today - Keep current on the latest studies and news developments on brain health.
  • Alz.org (and Alzheimersblog.org) - Find resources and support groups for local branches of the Alzheimer's Association, the leading nonprofit advocacy group.
  • Alzforum.org - A news site that publishes and archives the latest scientific papers on the disease.
  • Brainhq.com - A relatively new brain training site with personalized courses and challenges backed by research studies.
  • The Caregiver Action Network - Tips and forums for all types of caregiving situations. 
  • Dementiajourney.org - Practical and heartfelt advice for caring for loved ones with memory loss.
  • Fourhourworkweek.com - For creative approaches to productivity and mental alertness, Paula follows the blogs and podcasts of Timothy Ferriss.
  • Time.com/tag/longevity - News stories about the challenges we face later in life as we live longer.
  • Bulletproofexec.com - Paula Wolfert's daily routine inspired Cooking Light staffers to try Bulletproof coffee, a fuel for the Silicon Valley set. We blended 8 ounces of hot filtered coffee with 1 tablespoon Kerrygold grass-fed butter and 1 teaspoon XCT oil (derived from coconut oil) per serving. It made us feel much more alert than regular black coffee and staved off hunger, too.