Worried about Alzheimer’s disease? You’re in the majority. A national survey says it’s North America’s most feared disease.
While nothing, so far, can guarantee you’ll prevent or reverse the plaques, tangles and nerve-cell death that characterize Alzheimer’s, it turns out keeping the blood vessels in your brain healthy may cut your risk of brain dysfunction by a lot. There’s more and more evidence from academic and scientific brain centers around the world that a few simple steps can protect your cognitive powers and slash your risk for Alzheimer’s.
A new picture of what causes cognitive dysfunction and Alzheimer’s disease, and how to prevent it, is emerging. In it, your brain’s vital supply lines – the tiny blood vessels that deliver oxygen and fuel to every one of your 100 billion plus gray cells – play a bigger role than we used to think.
Recently, scientists peered into the brains of more than 4,000 people who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and found that nearly 80 percent also had signs of serious blood-vessel damage within their brain. In another new report, brain scientists found that blood vessel problems associated with high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol in middle age and diabetes (they reduce the healthy flow of blood to the brain) when combined with bodywide inflammation seem to raise the risk for Alzheimer’s.
OK, docs, but what should I do to keep my mind agile longer?
The answer: Preventing or controlling problems with your blood pressure, cholesterol and/or blood sugar levels can lower your odds for Alzheimer’s by almost 40 percent. So here are five strategies that can cut your risk, starting right now.
1. Manage stress: We believe this is key. Good studies have been done and more are under way, but we think it’s worth acting now to soothe mental and emotional tensions in your life and in your head. Stress releases the inflammation-producing hormone cortisol, and chronically elevated levels can wreak havoc on both your cardiovascular and nervous systems. Learn to meditate (do it for 10 minutes, twice a day); do progressive muscle relaxation, yoga or whatever else tames your hyped-up feelings. Also, spend more time with good friends or a loving spouse and pursuing your passions, too.
2. Move it!: People who are fit in their 40s and 50s are up to 35 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s later on. Exercise such as regularly walking 10,000 steps a day increases oxygen intake and blood flow. That, in turn, improves cognitive function and growth in two brain regions, the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, even in your 60s, 70s and 80s! For tips on how to start your memory-enhancing walking program, go to Sharecare.com. Increasing workout intensity and adding strength training two to three days a week can ramp up those brain-boosting benefits. Strenuous exercise – something that makes you sweat in a cool room, if your doc agrees – increases the size of your hippocampus, and that is key for keeping your memories.
3. Go Mediterranean: A diet rich in good fats found in olive oil, salmon, sea trout and nuts, along with plenty of produce, beans, lean protein, whole grains and a smidge of low-fat dairy could cut your risk of Alzheimer’s 15 percent to 40 percent. And when you combine this diet with regular physical activity, wow! You’ll be 59 percent less likely to develop symptoms of Alzheimer’s than a couch potato with a high-fat diet.
4. Control brain threats: Stop smoking, please! And take high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes very seriously. Controlling these factors could slash your risk, even if you already have early signs of fuzzy thinking.
5. Test and train your brain: If you’re worried about forgetfulness – your own or a loved one’s – ask your doctor about a new blood test for biomarkers (called miRNAs) that have been able to identify people with Alzheimer’s disease in more than 90 percent of the test cases. And no matter what the test results are, challenging your gray matter can increase sharpness and improve memory.