“Are there things I can do to keep from getting Alzheimer’s disease?” That’s the most common question patients ask Marwan Sabbagh, MD, a geriatric neurologist and director of clinical research at Sun Health Research Institute in Sun City, Ariz. The short answer, from this physician who has authored more than 70 scientific papers on the subject and a recent book, The Alzheimer’s Answer, is yes.
We know, says Sabbagh, that specific actions do reduce risk: dietary changes by at least 30 to 50 percent; drinking a little (“little” being the key word) red wine by 15 percent; regularly eating fatty fish by 40 to 60 percent; and taking high doses of folic acid by up to 55 percent. Because each of these factors has been studied individually, we don’t know if applying two or more of these strategies will have a cumulative effect. However, advises Sabbagh, “We need to embrace risk in totality; you have to do all these things together.”
In the most basic sense, what’s good for protecting the brain is also good for overall health: get enough sleep; avoid junk food, fast food, and saturated and trans fats; and don’t overeat. You should also do some form of aerobic exercise for at least 30 minutes daily. As a direct benefit, exercise improves blood flow in the brain. Indirectly, it helps to prevent or alleviate other conditions that raise the risk of Alzheimer’s, including high blood pressure and cholesterol, prediabetes, diabetes, and obesity. In addition, Sabbagh recommends the following foods and supplements to reduce risk:
India has the lowest incidence of Alzheimer’s in the world, and turmeric, the spice that gives curry its distinct flavor, is believed to be a key factor. The average Indian consumes around 30 mg (about 1 teaspoon) of turmeric every day in food. Curcumin, the active ingredient in the spice, has been the subject of scientific studies.
“Curcumin has been shown to have a lot of properties that make it very good for the brain,” says Sabbagh. “Specifically, it has anti-inflammatory properties as strong as ibuprofen, and it’s a strong antioxidant.” In cell cultures, he says, curcumin counteracts the formation of plaque in the brain, which are associated with Alzheimer’s.
What to do: Eat curry every day or take 400 mg of curcumin daily.
Fish is the chief food source of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), one of the key omega-3 fatty acids. DHA is a building block of cell membranes in the brain and protects the organ against toxins and degeneration. “DHA is important for the integrity of brain cells,” says Sabbagh. Studies show that people with Alzheimer’s have lower levels of DHA than those who are healthy.
Not all fish provide significant amounts of the nutrient. Packaged fish sticks, fish and chips, and fast-food fish offerings are usually made with cod, which is low in DHA. Fatty, cold-water fish such as wild salmon, tuna, herring, mackerel, and halibut are good sources of DHA.
What to do: Eat DHA-rich fish at least three times a week or take a daily supplement containing 500 to 1,000 mg of DHA. When choosing fish oil supplements, check ingredients labels for specific amounts of DHA, as these vary. Or, take an algae-derived DHA supplement. Other omega-3 fatty acids are good for overall health but are not directly related to Alzheimer’s risk.
Because blueberries are exceptionally rich in antioxidants, they are one of the best foods to stave off Alzheimer’s. Although a brain-healthful diet should always include a plentiful variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, Sabbagh recommends making blueberries a daily staple.
What to do: Eat 1 cup of blueberries daily. The beneficial components of blueberries are present in cooked berries as well. If fresh blueberries aren’t available, eat frozen ones.
The risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease doubles every five years after age 65; the risk is almost 50 percent for those over 85.
B vitamins and folic acid
Higher intake of folic acid, a B vitamin, is associated with lower risk of Alzheimer’s. Other B vitamins are also necessary for healthy brain function. B1 (thiamine) helps with reaction time and mental energy, and is depleted by heavy drinking. Levels of B3 (niacin) are associated with better cognitive function. B5 (pantothenic acid) is necessary for the production of acetylcholine, an essential neurotransmitter. B6 (pyridoxine) is required for the production of serotonin and other neurotransmitters. B12 (cyanocobalamin) is used to build a coating around nerve cells; the elderly and heavy drinkers are often deficient. B12 is more rapidly absorbed by injection than when taken orally, but oral, sublingual forms gradually raise B12 levels.
What to do: Get at least these amounts of B vitamins in a multi or B complex: 50 mg of B1; 20 mg of B3; 5 mg of B5; 25 to 50 mg (but not more than 100 mg) of B6; 1,000 mcg of B12; and 800 to 1,600 mcg of folic acid.
Vitamins C and E
Both vitamins C and E offer additional antioxidant protection and, in some studies, have been shown to improve cognitive function and lower risk for Alzheimer’s.
What to do: Get 1,500 mg of vitamin C and 400 IU of vitamin E from mixed tocopherols daily.
Three Special Supplements
If you are worried about memory loss or have a family history of Alzheimer’s, Sabbagh recommends adding three additional supplements to your daily routine. Each of these has been found to lower risk of Alzheimer’s in some studies, and each one is known to improve brain health in specific ways.
Ginkgo biloba: The herb contains antioxidants and increases blood flow. Take 60 mg of extract standardized to 24 percent flavone glycosides twice daily and allow 12 weeks for full benefits. (If you are taking a blood thinner, always consult your doctor before taking ginkgo.)
Huperzine A: This extract of the plant Huperzia serrata, used in traditional Chinese medicine, preserves levels of acetylcholine in the brain and acts as an antioxidant. Take 200 to 400 mcg daily.
Phosphatidylserine (PS): It improves levels of acetylcholine and is involved in signals within the brain. PS is a component of membranes of plants and animals; the supplement is made from soybeans and egg yolks. Take 100 to 200 mg daily.
Product Examples (from left)
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