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Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is a health condition many people are worried about as they or a loved one gets older. But no matter your age, you might ask yourself if there’s anything you can do now to reduce your risk of AD later in life.
The answer to that question is not a clear yes or no, and that’s because Alzheimer’s is a very complex condition researchers are still trying to understand. Many diseases have clear causes and scientifically proven ways to prevent or reduce the risk of developing them. For example, there’s strong evidence that lowering cholesterol lowers the risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
With Alzheimer’s, it’s different. Scientists don’t know why some people develop AD while others don’t. Because there are no clear answers to these questions, experts also aren’t sure there are ways to prevent it.
However, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do.
Can you prevent Alzheimer’s disease?
Although scientists have conducted many studies over the past decades, and more are ongoing, nothing has been proven yet to prevent or delay Alzheimer’s disease (Kumar, 2022).
Alzheimer’s disease is multifactorial, meaning that many factors contribute to its development—most of which aren’t entirely clear. This is likely why there’s no single change a person can make that prevents Alzheimer’s disease (Kuller, 2011).
However, there’s evidence that certain lifestyle changes and healthy habits—things that have been proven to be good for overall health and wellness—may lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s (Buchman, 2012). And while the research on these lifestyle changes and Alzheimer’s risk is still inconclusive, there may still be benefits to adopting those healthy habits. With no downsides and many known health benefits, certain lifestyle choices can improve your overall health and possibly even protect your brain (Serrano-Pozo, 2019).
You can think of it the same way you think about catching a cold: you may help or “strengthen” your immune system by eating right, good sleep hygiene, staying hydrated, washing your hands, and regular exercise—and still catch a cold after all. But that doesn’t make those healthy habits less worthwhile because they can benefit your health in many other ways.
7 lifestyle changes that might reduce Alzheimer’s risk
Health experts are always looking for ways to modify a person’s risk of developing serious illnesses, including AD. As we said earlier, there’s no clear proof that adopting healthy habits and lifestyle factors will prevent AD, but there’s some encouraging evidence that some practices might be linked to a lower risk of AD.
For example, one extensive study found “encouraging but inconclusive” evidence for three types of lifestyle changes: physical exercise, blood pressure control, and brain training. “Encouraging but inconclusive” basically means that these lifestyle changes are promising enough that researchers keep studying them (Downey, 2017).
Other behavioral changes have also been linked to a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease. And a lot of it comes down to simple things you do every day:
1. Regular exercise
Some studies suggest that regular physical activity may be linked to a lower risk of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. One theory is that exercise could benefit brain cells by increasing blood flow in the brain (Buchman, 2012; Tan, 2017).
However, many questions remain to be answered. To date, there’s not enough evidence for experts to conclude that exercise can prevent or slow Alzheimer’s (Smith, 2011; Young, 2015). Despite the lack of solid evidence, regular exercise has countless health benefits for both physical and mental well-being, so health experts still encourage physical activity.
2. Controlling underlying health conditions
There’s a saying, “What’s good for your heart is good for your brain.” In fact, some studies suggest that controlling underlying conditions like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and diabetes—all of which take a toll on your heart—may help reduce the risk of dementia. People with Alzheimer’s-related changes in the brain often also have blood vessel damage in the brain (Baumgart, 2015; Barnes, 2011).
High blood pressure, in particular, seems to be linked with an increased risk of AD and other forms of dementia. One large clinical trial found that lowering systolic blood pressure (the upper number) to less than 120 mmHg in people 50 and older lowered the risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a common precursor of Alzheimer’s. However, keeping blood pressure low didn’t reduce the overall risk of dementia (Williamson, 2019). Some researchers argue that the effect of blood pressure treatment on reducing the AD risk may be most important in midlife (Lennon, 2019, Zhang, 2021).
While research continues, health experts across the board recommend that people control high blood pressure to avoid other serious health problems like heart disease and stroke.
3. Eating a nutritious, balanced diet
Some evidence suggests that a diet that’s good for your heart and blood vessels may also protect the brain. However, the evidence is not as strong as for physical activity and controlling blood pressure.
Researchers have studied diets like the Mediterranean diet and the related MIND diet, which stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. This diet encourages people to eat lots of vegetables, berries, whole grains, nuts, and lean proteins from fish or poultry (Daviglus, 2010).
Multiple studies found that people who adhered most closely to the MIND diet had a reduced rate of Alzheimer’s disease compared to those who did not follow the diet closely (Morris, 2015). So far, we can’t say that any specific diet plan can prevent AD, but a healthy diet can reduce the risk of conditions like high blood pressure that impact brain health.
Meanwhile, recent studies have linked foods that are not part of the Mediterranean diet—stuff that’s high in fat and sugar, also known as “ultra-processed foods”—to faster cognitive decline and a higher risk of dementia. Ultra-processed foods include pre-packed snacks, soft drinks, chips, and cookies—basically, things that take little to no time to prepare (Li, 2022).
Researchers don’t yet understand why there’s a connection between ultra-processed foods and dementia. More importantly, they found that replacing just 10% of ultra-processed foods with healthy, unprocessed foods, like fresh fruit, vegetables, milk, and meat, was linked to a 19% lower risk of dementia (Li, 2022).
4. Maintaining a healthy weight
There’s conflicting evidence on whether obesity is linked to a higher risk of dementia (Luchsinger, 2007). Some studies found a link between obesity and Alzheimer’s, while others didn’t (Albanese, 2015). But keep in mind that regardless of AD risk, losing weight (when indicated) may reduce your risk of many chronic health conditions, like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
5. Preventing injuries
Head trauma may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s, so protect your brain from injury by wearing seat belts in the car, using handrails to prevent falls, or wearing a helmet when biking (Shively, 2012; Moretti, 2012). Even if it doesn’t prevent AD, these measures can help you avoid serious injury.
6. Training the brain
Some interventions like memory training, visual cues, and reasoning training may help improve memory in the short term, but it’s not clear whether they have a positive long-term effect (Unzervagt, 2012; Willis, 2006).
7. Quitting smoking
Some studies suggest that cigarette smoke—even secondhand smoke—may contribute to dementia (Chen, 2012; Zhong, 2015). Other studies indicate that the answer is not straightforward (Almeida, 2002). But even if cutting back on tobacco doesn’t prevent AD, it certainly lowers the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, lung disease, and certain cancers.
Overall benefits of lifestyle changes
To summarize, researchers cannot say for certain whether making any of the above lifestyle changes can lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. It’s important to remember that the body’s organs and systems are all interconnected and dependent on each other. Keeping one part of the body healthy has a beneficial effect on other body systems. So even if an intervention doesn’t directly impact the brain, it may indirectly affect brain health.
The lifestyle changes mentioned above can decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease, improve mental health, reduce the risk of certain cancers, and more. So they are beneficial for your overall well-being and quality of life and worth adopting, regardless of the strength of the data on Alzheimer’s disease.
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Dr. Chimene Richa is a board-certified Ophthalmologist and Senior Medical Writer/Reviewer at Ro.