According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. That number could triple by 2050. The disease is far-reaching, often creates life-threatening stress for caregivers, and is invariably fatal. It is now the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. And while the death rates for cancer, heart disease and other conditions have been declining, the rates for Alzheimer’s disease are climbing.
A number of factors can put us at greater risk for this all-too-common disease. Genetics are an important cause of your risk, but how genes influence your chances of Alzheimer’s is not entirely understood.
For example, a gene called APOE-e4 increases your risk of Alzheimer’s, but does not make it a certainty. There are other genes that have a more direct link to the condition and are associated with rare, usually early-onset, versions of the disease. Individuals may want to have their genes sequenced to clarify their risk.
Heart health has emerged as a major factor. Because the brain is so heavily reliant on the oxygen and nutrients carried through the bloodstream, any cardiovascular difficulties can produce a ripple effect on the brain. High blood pressure and cholesterol can both significantly boost your risk of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Because Latinos and African-Americans tend to be at higher risk for cardiovascular disease, they can also be at higher risk for dementia.
Other major risk factories include a sedentary lifestyle, smoking, depression, diabetes and obesity. Women seem to have a slightly higher risk for the disease, though it’s unclear whether this is due to differences in body makeup or simply because women, on average, live longer than men.
Food for thought
Eating a whole food, unprocessed diet also appears to reduce dementia risk. Again, diet can help or hurt your brain: Good food choices help, and bad choices can wreak havoc, not just for brain health but every other area of health as well. As previously noted, if you have cardiovascular disease, you have an increased risk for cognitive decline.
So if you eat foods that protect the heart – lean proteins, whole grains, lots of fruits and vegetables – you can potentially improve your brain health as well.
Your meals should emphasize greens and cruciferous vegetables – items like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale and collards. Some research has shown that these can reduce cognitive decline. As a bonus, they are also good for the immune system, detoxification and hormone balance.
Omega-3 fatty acids have also been found to support brain health. One study has shown that people are deficient in omega-3s tend to have smaller brains. That is also a risk factor for cognitive decline. Fatty fish, like salmon, are a great source of these fats, as are nuts and flax seed. Some animal studies have shown that a form of omega-3 known as DHA reduces beta amyloid plaques, a defining characteristic of Alzheimer’s.
Animal studies have shown that rats fed a standard Western diet of processed foods have more trouble with learning and memory. This makes sense: Fat-laden diets are also bad for cardiovascular health and glucose metabolism.
Botanicals and nutrients
We think of mental stress as the overwhelmed sensation we feel when too much is going on, but there’s another form that can affect the brain: oxidative stress caused by unstable molecules called free radicals. Free radical oxidation wreaks havoc on cells and tissues, fueling chronic inflammation and even damaging DNA. There is a growing body of data showing that excess oxidative stress can contribute to dementia, Alzheimer’s and general cognitive decline.
Resveratrol, a compound found in particularly high concentrations in red wine, has shown some promise in studies as a potent antioxidant. Research has shown that people who drink moderate amounts of red wine are at lower risk for Alzheimer’s. Animal studies have also shown that resveratrol reduces amyloid plaque.
Another powerful antioxidant is honokiol, derived from Magnolia bark. Honokiol has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years as a mild sedative. New research has shown that, as an antioxidant, honokiol is a 1,000 times more powerful than vitamin E. It’s also been shown in preclinical studies to be a powerful anti-inflammatory and neuro-protective agent to help support brain health and much more.
Curcumin, the active ingredient in the spice turmeric, has also been used in traditional Asian practices for many centuries. Again, modern research is confirming its benefits. In another powerful study from the Salk Institute, a drug created from curcumin reversed Alzheimer’s in mice. More research will need to be done to confirm this finding, but it’s a good confirmation of curcumin’s benefits for brain health.
In addition, with what we know about the relationship between cardiovascular disease and dementia, we should also work to improve circulation. Found in a fermented soybean product called Natto, nattokinase promotes healthy blood flow. Another good supplement for circulation is the amino acid L-Carnitine, which is also an antioxidant.
Exercise is good for the brain
Numerous studies have shown that exercise can delay cognitive decline, and poor circulation is a factor in dementia. And of course, this works both ways – better circulation seems to reduce risk: Exercise has been found to enhance brain connectivity.
A number of studies have compared the mental acuity of older adults based on their physical activity. One study looked at women over 65 who walked 30 minutes each day. Other research examined the activity in people over 70. The results have been consistent. The people who exercise do better on mental tests and don’t suffer as much cognitive decline as do sedentary people who rarely partake of physical activity.
A study by scientists at the University of British Columbia also found that women with mild cognitive impairment improved their memory with weight training and aerobics compared to simply stretching. At the end of the study, the women doing weights and aerobics scored better on memory tests than the women who only stretched.
Mind, body, brain
Good for the brain in many ways, meditation (and other mind-body exercises) can control stress and maintain positive mood. It also appears to improve memory. One study observed participants, some of whom had mild cognitive decline or Alzheimer’s, performing a specific type of meditation. In follow-up tests, participants increased blood flow to the brain and improved their scores on cognitive tests.
Another study showed that meditation can actually change how your brain is structured. Scientists at UCLA found that meditation increases the folding in the cerebral cortex, which improves how the brain deals with information. This positively impacts the ability to retrieve memories, form decisions and focus.
In addition, social activity improves brain function. People who volunteer, have large social or family networks, or have other forms of engagement have been shown to increase life span, improve health and decrease depression.
Currently, there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. However, continuing research is uncovering basic, everyday ways to address cognitive decline. A healthy diet, regular movement, targeted nutrients, relaxation and social connections can all help to keep our minds sharp over time, offering tangible benefits for every area of health.