Anyone over the age of 65 is at risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease, yet science suggests that up to 40% of Alzheimer’s cases could be prevented through healthy lifestyle modifications, says an expert from Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health ahead of World Alzheimer’s Day on September 21.
“Changes in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s take place up to 20 years before the onset of symptoms, so it is never too early to start implementing a healthy lifestyle to reduce risk,” says Jessica Caldwell, PhD, a neuropsychologist who is also trained in neuroscience.
Alzheimer’s disease is a brain disorder that progressively leads to a decline in individuals’ ability to think, learn, organize, carry out daily activities and remember important details. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia and may contribute to 60-70% of the 55 million cases of dementia worldwide. The WHO reports that there are nearly 10 million new cases of dementia every year and this number is expected to rise alongside the increasing proportion of elderly populations in most countries.
Dr. Caldwell, who is Director of the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement Prevention Center at Cleveland Clinic, says, “Alzheimer’s is multifactorial disease. So, for example, in an individual developing the most common form, late-onset Alzheimer’s, the cause will probably be a combination of factors including aging, genetics, family history, overall health, lifestyle behaviors, and even environmental effects such as air pollution.”
Although researchers cannot pinpoint all the causes of Alzheimer’s conclusively, they have identified several modifiable risk factors associated with the disease, and have also identified several lifestyle habits that can boost brain function. Among these, Dr. Caldwell says she recommends three lifestyle tips in particular as they offer multiple benefits and support overall health.
Dr. Caldwell adds that it is never too late in life to implement these three healthy habits as they help to maximize brain function for as long as possible, and improve outcomes for those already diagnosed with cognitive impairment.
Dr Caldwell’s top 3 tips
1. Exercise regularly: Exercise has both immediate and long-term brain benefits, from increasing brain chemistry that supports the health of brain cells, to reducing factors such as chronic bodily inflammation that can be harmful for the brain, says Dr. Caldwell. She adds that exercise also has indirect brain benefits, for example, improving mood and sleep, reducing stress, supporting heart health, increasing opportunities to socialize, and lowering blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes risk — all of which reduce risks for declining memory with age.
“The exercise goal for long-term brain health is at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week, for example, a brisk walk,” says Dr. Caldwell. “For healthy adults, more is better, so you could bump this up to 300 minutes, and if you are under the age of 60, high intensity interval training (HIIT) is best for supporting healthy brain function.”
For people who have not previously exercised, Dr. Caldwell recommends getting a doctor’s approval before starting a program. She suggests enlisting a partner for accountability and motivation, or pairing exercise with something people already enjoy, such as riding a stationary bike while watching TV, or walking while listening to a podcast.
2. Get sufficient sleep: Poor sleep can have immediate as well as cumulative negative impact on an individual’s brain functioning, says Dr. Caldwell. Conversely, sound sleep improves mood, sharpens intellect and consolidates new memories for long-term storage. “Sleep also gives our brains the chance to clear debris, including beta amyloid, a protein that can cluster and clump together to form Alzheimer's plaque,” adds Dr. Caldwell. She recommends seven to eight continuous hours of sleep as a target for adults.
3. Eat a well-balanced diet: Research shows that a Mediterranean-style diet rich in fish, whole grains, leafy green vegetables, olives and nuts helps maintain brain health and may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, says Dr. Caldwell. She advises minimizing red meat, whole-fat cheese, butter and fried food and sweets, and to limit alcohol consumption.
“Prevention is a young science, and we need more research and volunteers to participate in studies. What we have discovered already, though, is invaluable in helping people to live their lives to the fullest in their 80s and beyond,” Dr. Caldwell concludes.