Prevention of Alzheimer's Disease

In a world where the treatment options for Alzheimer's disease are marginal at best and no miracle drugs are in sight, the focus in the fight against Alzheimer's is on prevention. If doctors don't know yet how to treat the disease once you get it, can you prevent it from occurring?

While prevention strategies like immunizations aren't available yet, research has identified several ways that you can decrease your risk for Alzheimer's disease and other types of dementia. These are factors that you can exercise some control over—choices and lifestyles that you can influence, at least to some extent.

Protect Your Head

There is a connection between head injuries, especially those where you lose consciousness, and an increased risk of dementia. You can reduce the chances of head injuries by wearing a helmet when you ride your bike and play sports, by being aware of what causes people to experience falls in their homes and trying to prevent those situations, and by always wearing a seatbelt when you're in a car.

Keep Your Heart Healthy

Many of the same strategies to reduce heart disease also benefit your brain. For example, research suggests that high blood pressure is correlated with an increased risk of dementia, while lowering it through exercise and a heart-healthy diet can reduce your risk. Interestingly, studies have found that if you're not effective with your efforts through diet and exercise, your risk of dementia can still be reduced by taking medications to lower your blood pressure.

Don't Smoke

Lighting up increases your risk for several types of cancer and lung diseases, but did you know that it also can hurt your brain? According to the World Health Organization, 14% of Alzheimer's cases worldwide may be attributed to smoking tobacco. Even secondhand smoke may increase your dementia risk.

Physical Exercise

Physical exercise has been strongly correlated with a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer's and other types of dementia. Studies have been conducted on several types of exercise including running, weight resistance training, and yoga, all showing the potential to reduce your risk of dementia.

Along with specific types of exercise, physical activity in general—including dancing and gardening—has been connected to dementia prevention. Even just reducing your sedentary time is the first step.

Eat Right

What you put in your mouth has a significant connection to the health of your brain. A healthy diet that helps reduce the risk of Alzheimer's includes whole grains, nuts, legumes, fruits, and leafy green vegetables, among other foods.

Adhering to the Mediterannean diet, which often contains many of the foods listed above, has been correlated with a host of health benefits, including improved brain functioning and fewer changes that are seen in Alzheimer's disease.

Lower levels of vitamin B12, vitamin D, and vitamin E have all been associated with decreased cognitive functioning in some research studies. In particular, a deficiency in vitamin B12 can cause significant memory loss and confusion that may be at least partially reversed through vitamin B12 supplementation. Likewise, higher levels of vitamin D and vitamin E have been linked to dementia prevention.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

Keeping your body mass index (BMI) in a healthy range, especially in your middle years, has been tied to dementia prevention. Learn if your BMI is in the healthy range using this calculator.

Mental Exercise

The saying "use it or lose it" has a lot of truth in it. Exercise your brain to keep it sharp. Mental activity has been associated with increased cognitive reserve, which in turn has been connected with dementia prevention.

Research connecting mental exercise to better brain health includes activities such as learning and using another language, doing crossword puzzles, playing card games, and even going online to use Facebook.

Along the same lines as mental exercise, cognitive training takes things a step further. Cognitive training consists of spending structured time training your brain, almost as if you were working out with a personal trainer.

You could go back to school. Research has repeatedly connected higher education levels to a lower risk of cognitive impairment. Even if you don't enroll officially, it's important to keep learning throughout your whole life.

Some research suggests that you may want to switch it up. Learning about things that are unfamiliar to you can have more of a benefit than continuing to focus on the same topic that you've been interested in for many years.

Control Blood Sugars (Even Without Diabetes)

A strong connection between higher blood sugars and dementia risk exists—so much so that Alzheimer's disease has been nicknamed "type 3 diabetes." Even if you don't have diabetes, higher blood sugars can increase the risk of dementia. Maintaining good control of blood sugars, with or without a diabetes diagnosis, can be thought of as preventative medicine for your brain. That means that less sugar in your diet is generally better for your brain.

Social Interaction

Spending time with friends has been identified as an important factor, both for maintaining quality of life and for reducing the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. It's not necessarily the number of friends you have, but rather the quality and depth of the friendship that matters. Social interactions such as babysitting grandchildren have also been associated with improved cognitive functioning.

Get Better Sleep and Control Sleep Apnea

Getting plenty of sleep is recommended by the National Institute on Aging. Sleep apnea—where you stop breathing multiple times while you're sleeping—has many risks associated with it, including an increased risk of dementia. The good news is that research has also shown that people who treated their sleep apnea with a machine that helps them breathe, such as a CPAP machine, experienced a significant improvement in their cognitive functioning when compared to those who did not seek treatment.

Treat Depression

Both early-life and later-life depression have been found to increase the risk of developing dementia. Why is uncertain, but feelings of depression can affect brain function. It's possible that addressing symptoms of depression could improve your quality of life and perhaps also decrease your risk of later experiencing dementia.

How Effective Are Prevention Strategies?

Perhaps you're wondering if it's worth the time and effort to attempt to reduce your risk of dementia. After all, other risk factors such as age, heredity, and family history also play a role in determining your risk.

Multiple research studies have concluded that modifiable factors (ones that you are able to potentially influence by your lifestyle and choices) likely play a significant role in many cases of dementia. However, it's important to understand that while these strategies have been associated with reduced risk, they haven't been directly shown to cause the reduced risk. Rather, most research has demonstrated a correlation, which shows a relationship to or a connection between the healthy living strategy and the reduced risk of dementia. One reason this is true of many studies is that research that determines cause is generally more difficult to conduct than research that shows correlation.

Additionally, there are some people that, although they practice many of these strategies and work hard to live a healthy life, still develop dementia. Science still has a ways to go when it comes to completely understanding what really causes dementia and, therefore, how we can fully prevent it from developing or treat it effectively after it is present.

A Word From Verywell

Many of these well-researched steps to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias are really just directions for healthy living. If you're looking for more motivation to make the gym a priority, or to choose an apple instead of that bag of chips, the thought that you may be able to protect your brain from diseases like Alzheimer’s might provide just the push you need.

Consider viewing these strategies as a gift to those around you and to yourself—both for today and for your future health.

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