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Patients Ask: Can Healthy Living Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease?

November 16, 2021Neelem Sheikh

6.5 million Americans aged 65 and older are living with Alzheimer’s disease, and this number continues to grow, with 12.7 million people aged 65 and older projected to have Alzheimer’s disease by 2050 unless there are medical breakthroughs to prevent, slow the progression of, or cure Alzheimer’s disease.

Can healthy living prevent Alzheimer’s disease? While there are currently no proven strategies to prevent Alzheimer’s, strong evidence from developing research suggests that several factors of healthy living may significantly reduce the risk of developing the disease. 

Let’s take a look into how healthy living may prevent Alzheimer’s disease and actionable steps you can take to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

Evidence Suggesting Healthy Living Can Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease 

Researchers reviewed data from two memory and aging longitudinal studies, selecting participants with data on their diets, lifestyle factors, genetics, and clinical assessments. Each of the 1,845 participants was scored based on five factors of healthy living, including the following:

  • ≥ 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity per week
  • Refraining from smoking
  • Light-to-moderate alcohol consumption
  • Incorporation of the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet, which is a combination of the Mediterranean diet and Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet
  • Engagement in late-life cognitive activities

When compared to participants with zero or one of the above lifestyle factors, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s was 37% lower in participants with two or three of the above lifestyle factors and a whopping 60% lower in participants with four or five of the above lifestyle factors.

Incorporating Lifestyle Changes to Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease

As indicated above, factors that can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease include quitting smoking, controlling alcohol consumption, eating a healthy diet, increasing physical activity, and getting sufficient mental engagement. Other factors that may reduce the risk include protecting the brain from head trauma and protecting the ears from hearing loss. Let’s delve a little deeper into actionable steps you can take to improve brain health. 

Controlling Cardiovascular Risk Factors

Many factors of healthy living relate to a concept called the heart-head connection, meaning what is good for the heart is good for the head. Many conditions that increase the risk of cardiovascular disease also increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Conditions such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes are known to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and thus may also increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

To control cardiovascular risk factors, experts recommend the following:

  • Smoking cessation: As soon as a day after quitting smoking, your risk of heart disease is reduced significantly. Cigarette smoke reduces the amount of oxygen in your blood, which in turn forces your heart to work harder and increases your blood pressure and heart rates. The chemicals in tobacco may also directly damage your blood vessels and heart.
  • Controlling alcohol consumption: In addition to liver damage, the excessive consumption of alcohol can lead to several heart conditions such as high blood pressure while increasing the risk of stroke, heart attack, and arrhythmias. Light-to-moderate alcohol consumption is no more than two drinks per day for men and no more than one drink per day for women.
  • Eating a healthy diet: Heart-healthy diets, such as the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet, and the MIND diet, can protect your heart, reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, and improve your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. These diets typically include an increased intake of fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and healthy fats such as olive oil and a reduced intake of sugar, processed carbohydrates, and saturated fats.
  • Exercising daily for 30-60 minutes: Regular physical activity helps maintain a healthy weight and reduces the risk of cardiovascular conditions, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Other Factors That May Contribute to the Development of Alzheimer’s 

Research suggests that there is a strong correlation between serious head trauma and cognitive decline. One study suggests that sustaining a moderate head injury doubles the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease as well as other causes of dementia. While some head injuries can’t be prevented, you can take steps to avoid certain cases. For example, you can reduce the risk of head injury by taking precautions such as wearing your seatbelt or using a helmet when participating in sports.

A newly discussed factor that may contribute to developing dementias such as Alzheimer’s is hearing loss. In a study that tracked more than 600 adults for almost 12 years, researchers found that hearing loss correlated strongly with the development of dementia. Mild hearing loss doubled dementia risk, moderate hearing loss tripled the risk, and those with severe hearing impairment were five times more likely to develop dementia.

While the specific mechanism connecting hearing loss to neurodegeneration is not yet clear, one contributing factor may be the social isolation that often comes with hearing loss. Several neurobiological changes associated with faster cognitive decline are connected to a lack of social and mental engagement.

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