An estimated 5.8 million Americans were living with Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) in 2020, which is also the sixth leading cause of death in the US. Alzheimer’s is common among senior citizens and is linked to dementia, a condition that results in memory loss and reduced cognitive function. So it is natural to worry about developing Alzheimer’s or dementia as you age since increasing age is the biggest known risk factor.
Scientists do not fully understand the exact cause of the disease and the risks of developing dementia as a result. That’s because not everyone with Alzheimer’s will get dementia. The important thing is learning more about these two conditions and familiarizing yourself with the risk factors.
Here is some key researched-based information on preventing Alzheimer’s and dementia and tips on slowing their progress following a diagnosis.
What Is the Link Between Alzheimer’s and Dementia?
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, irreversible brain disorder that results from brain cell damage. It slowly reduces your thinking and memory skills. Those with advanced stages of the disease may lose the ability to carry out the simplest tasks, e.g., tying their shoelace.
The disorder typically affects people aged 65 or older but early-onset can begin in middle age. These individuals may also have dementia caused by Alzheimer’s. In fact, the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) refers to the disease as the most common type of dementia.
Dementia is a group of symptoms related to a loss of cognitive skills such as thinking, reasoning, remembering, and communicating. It is generally caused by abnormal changes in the brain linked to the development of AD. There are different types of dementia including vascular and Lewy Body dementia.
Both Alzheimer’s and dementia range in severity from mild to severe. Together, these conditions can significantly reduce your independence and quality of life.
Alzheimer’s and Dementia Risk Factors
Scientists believe multiple factors increase the risk of Alzheimer’s. Primary factors include:
- Genetics (heredity)
- Family history
- Medical conditions
- Being a woman
Associated medical conditions include cardiovascular disorders such as high cholesterol, atherosclerosis, diabetes, and Mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Head injuries or trauma, chronic smoking, excessive alcohol drinking, and long-term inflammation in the brain are also closely linked to both disorders
Can You Prevent or Slow Alzheimer’s and Dementia?
Yes, although there is no cure for these two conditions that affect brain function and daily life. In addition, certain risk factors like age, gender, and genetics are out of your control.
Doctors usually prescribe certain medications and may encourage you to consider things within your control such as making lifestyle changes. The main goal is to protect brain health in order to reduce the risks of Alzheimer’s and dementia or slow nerve cell deterioration if you’ve already been diagnosed. Maintaining a healthy brain rests on these seven pillars:
- Exercise regularly
- Get quality sleep
- Maintain a healthy diet
- Stay socially engaged
- Manage stress
- Take care of your vascular health
- Encourage mental stimulation
Pillar #1. Regular Exercise
Exercise is a huge aspect of brain health,” according to The Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation.
The organization encourages regular physical exercise, which may help reduce your risk of developing the disease by up to 50 percent. It can also slow brain cell deterioration in individuals who already started developing cognitive problems.
Exercise is shown to stimulate the brain’s ability to maintain old connections and create new ones. There are even studies that find a relationship between exercise and a reduction in cognitive decline and memory loss in those who were already diagnosed.
Your exercise routine can include activities that get your heart pumping such as strength and aerobic exercises. For example, brisk walking, jogging, playing tennis, swimming, or dancing. A treadmill, elliptical, or stationary bike can also do the trick if you’re into exercising with machines.
Experts say the magic recipe is at least 150 minutes per week of a combination of cardio exercise and strength training. Beginners can try light activities, such as walking or jogging, until they are comfortable doing more moderate exercises.
Remember to include muscle building and balance and coordination exercises in your routine. Moderate strength and resistance training help increase muscle mass and protect brain health. About 2-3 sessions a week of strength training sessions may cut your risk of Alzheimer’s in half.
Balance and coordination exercises may protect you from falls and head injuries. Practicing yoga, Ta Chi, or using balancing balls are some simple ways to retain good balance. Don’t forget to protect your head when cycling or engaging in other activates that increase the risk of falls.
Pillar #2. Quality Sleep
Many adults are not only worn out from the stress of daily living but they are also sleep deprived. Adults need an average of 6 to 9 hours of sleep daily according to the Sleep Foundation. The quality of your sleep is also important for storing information for memory and helping your body repair and rejuvenate itself.
If you keep waking up during the night, you will likely feel the effects the next day. Lack of quality sleep may result in next-day irritability, lethargy, mood changes, trouble concentrating, and memory gaps.
Studies also discovered a link between poor sleep patterns and the development of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Apparently, poor sleep causes a rise in levels of beta-amyloid in your brain. Beta-amyloid is a sticky protein that plays a key role in Alzheimer’s. These proteins clump together to form plaques in the brain that end up disrupting nerve cell function.
Helpful ways to improve sleep include:
- Have a regular bedtime schedule
- Relax before bedtime
- Create an environment that supports sleep
- Use comfortable bedding and pillows
- Reduce screen time a few hours before bed
- Avoid caffeine at least 5-6 hours before bedtime
- Rule out sleep disorders such as insomnia and sleep apnea
Going to bed and waking up at a certain time daily helps keep your circadian rhythms (natural body clock) in tune. Setting the mood for sleep involves removing or turning off things, such as the TV, radio, light, or phone, that stimulate your senses and can keep you awake.
You can listen to music, meditate, do light stretches, or take a warm bath to relax your body and mind before bed. Make it a ritual and you may notice these relaxation techniques not only reduce stress but also help you fall asleep and stay asleep longer.
You should get screened for insomnia or sleep apnea if you’ve been having difficulties falling asleep for a prolonged period or you wake up feeling unrefreshed
Pillar #3. Eat Healthily
Your diet influences your health and helps nourish your brain, so eating healthy is a must in preventing or slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Your brain is a flesh-and-blood organ and needs the fuel from the right foods to function properly.
Some ways to maintain brain health through foods include:
- Eating a Mediterranean diet
- Cutting down on sugars
- Consuming plenty of fruits and vegetables
- Eating anti-inflammatory rich foods
- Cooking meals at home
- Drinking a lot of water daily for hydration
- Taking a brain or memory supplement
You should eat plenty of foods, such as fruits and vegetables, that are high in folic acid, B vitamins, vitamin C, and E. You can also find these vitamins and minerals in brain health or memory supplements. Researchers found that vitamin C reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 20 percent when taken with vitamin E.
There are also memory-specific nutrients including omega-3 fatty acids (fish oils), ginkgo Biloba, coenzyme Q10, phosphatidylserine, and acetyl-L-carnitine. Omega-3 oils have anti-inflammatory effects that can help get rid of toxins and prevent inflammation. This, in turn, may reduce nerve cell damage from oxidative stress.
Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include cold-water fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel, tuna, and sardine. Some people opt to supplement with fish oil. Fruits and vegetables are also good sources of antioxidants, a compound that reduces oxidative stress and fights inflammation in the body and brain.
Eating healthy usually involves cooking your own food to control sodium, sugar, carb, and fat intake. There is also evidence that eating a Mediterranean diet can significantly reduce the risk of decline from cognitive impairment, a common risk factor for Alzheimer’s.
Pillar #4. Social Engagement
Humans are not meant to live in isolation, which may explain why people tend to feel lonely or depressed when they remain withdrawn from social life for a prolonged period. Staying socially engaged may be a way to prevent or slow the progression of these two brain disorders.
In fact, organizations that provide support for people living with these conditions encourage caregivers to make social activities a priority for their loved ones. Socializing with friends and family are ways to reduce stress, helps you laugh more, and give you a sense of having a strong network of people you can trust and depend on.
Of course, it’s normal for seniors to pull away from friends and loved ones, especially if they feel like they’re a burden to them. But you can encourage your loved one to make new friends. They can find joy and relaxation through the following:
- Talking with their neighbors
- Visiting parks and museums
- Volunteering at a local church or organization
- Going on regular dates or picnics with friends
- Joining a club or social group
- Visiting a local community center or senior center
- Taking a class such as singing or piano lessons
Pillar #5. Stress Management
The daily grind leads to physical as well as mental stress. While you cannot avoid stress altogether, persistent or chronic stress may eventually take a toll on brain health. It can impact nerve cell growth and repair and increase your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Stress has been shown to play a key role in high cholesterol, high cortisol, high blood pressure, the death of brain cells, and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Protecting brain cells is key to preventing or slowing memory loss as well as other symptoms of AD.
Fortunately, you can take control and manage stressors such as those related to your personal life. One way is to adopt stress-relieving techniques that can reduce the negative effects of stress on your brain and your chance of developing Alzheimer’s.
Some stress-management techniques include:
- Deep breathing
- Prayer and reflection
- Guided imagery and visualization
- Engaging in fun activities
You can explore these techniques and find the one that suits you the most. It may take a bit of daily practice before you develop a routine. The bottom line is to nourish your inner peace to immunize yourself against the harmful effects of stress. You’ll eventually start feeling more relaxed and balanced.
Pillar #6. Vascular Health
Poor cardiovascular health is strongly associated with dementia. Vascular conditions such as atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), heart disease, and stroke are common causes of a type of dementia called vascular dementia.
People with diabetes, high blood pressure (hypertension), and high cholesterol tend to have a higher risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Fortunately, it’s not too late to start focusing on heart health to minimize the risk of medical conditions linked to dementia and AD. Steps you can take include:
- Eating foods that promote heart health
- Controlling your blood pressure
- Managing your weight
- Quitting smoking
- Keeping diabetes in check
According to American Heart Association, a blood pressure reading of 130/80 mm Hg or higher is considered high blood pressure. Hypertension can damage tiny blood vessels in areas of the brain responsible for cognition and memory. It can also lead to heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes.
Eating a healthy diet can contribute to a more favorable weight, lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, and keep diabetes under control.
Quitting smoking and excessive alcohol consumption will also help improve cardiovascular health. The results of a study show that smokers over the age of 65 increase their risk of Alzheimer’s by more than 70% compared to those who never smoked. When you stop smoking, it immediately improves blood circulation to the brain and reduces the risk of dementia.
Also, remember to take your doctor-prescribed medications for high blood pressure.
Pillar #7. Stay Mentally Stimulated
It’s important to continue learning new things and challenging your brain throughout your life. Learning new things helps your brain stay active and healthy. Mental stimulation is like exercise for your brain. The same way you lose muscle strength and mass from lack of exercise, the same way the brain experiences loss of function from lack of activity.
A breakthrough study known as the ACTIVE study found that older adults who received at least 10 sessions of mental training saw improvement in their cognitive functioning in daily activities. Mental stimulation helps improve reasoning, memory, and speed.
Try to set aside time each day to activate your brain through tasks that require organizing, communicating, interacting, and multi-tasking. Other suggestions include:
- Learning something new each day
- Practicing memorization techniques
- Increasing knowledge or improve a skill
- Challenging your brain with problem-solving activities
New knowledge can come from learning to play a musical instrument, crafting, or a foreign language. The more challenging it is for you to learn this new skill the better, as the brain will need to work harder. Alternatively, improving on already acquired knowledge and skills can be equally challenging for the brain. For example, learning to play a new piece of music on your piano or guitar.
Practicing memorization techniques is good for strengthening your memory connections. You will not only learn new information, but you’ll become better at remembering using memorization techniques such as mnemonics and chunking. An example of chunking is all trying to remember items by grouping them together. The rhyming and pattern strategies also work well.
Last but not least, problem-solving games such as puzzles and riddles provide a good mental workout. These brain teasers help enhance your brain’s ability to form and retain cognitive associations. Popular brain games include Scrabble and crossword puzzles.
Women and Alzheimer’s Risk
Women have double the risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease than men. Scientists believe it has to do with menopause and a decline in fertility in middle age. Estrogen helps protect the brain cells. As such, a drop in estrogen levels in menopausal women may make them more prone to Alzheimer’s later in life.
Women can combat this problem by taking estrogen supplements, receiving hormone therapy, and following the seven pillars for preventing Alzheimer’s and dementia or slowing their progression. Boost estrogen levels naturally by adding foods rich in antioxidants, such as strawberries, red grapes, soy, flax seeds, and red wine, to your diet.
As researchers scramble to find a cure or an effective treatment to prevent or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s and dementia, you have the 7 pillars of brain health as a useful system. You don’t have to wait until you’re in your sixties to start. The sooner you take control of your lifestyle and diet habits, the more power you have to shield yourself against cognitive decline, memory loss, and reduced quality of life associated with these disorders.
At OrthoNOW, we’re committed to providing you with the information you need in order to make informed decisions about your health. We’re here to support you in achieving and maintaining a healthy body and mind. Our orthopedic specialists are ready to help you lower the risk of orthopedic injuries so that you can have a better quality of life.
Our OrthoNOW Rehabilitation Center provides a private outpatient clinical setting for physical and occupational therapy where quality of care and patient satisfaction are our primary goals. Call (305) 537-7275 to make an appointment.