Feeling a little foggy? It may be a normal part of getting older, or it may be something more serious. As we age, it’s typical to lose some mental sharpness as brain cells begin to deteriorate and our bodies deliver essential fuels less efficiently. Alzheimer’s disease, on the other hand, is not an inconvenient aspect of getting older—it’s an incurable, degenerative, and ultimately fatal illness.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. It’s characterized by a buildup of amyloid protein plaques, tangled bundles of nerve fibers, and the loss of connections between nerve cells in the brain. Symptoms generally appear around the age of 60, and the disease is usually diagnosed in people over the age of 65, but it can occur earlier. And it’s an enormous and troubling problem: Current estimates show that as many as 5.1 million Americans may have Alzheimer’s disease.
The exact cause is unknown, but contributing factors include genetics, lifestyle, and diet. And while there’s no known cure, there are things you can do to help prevent it—especially if you start early enough.
“Childhood isn’t too soon to start protecting your brain,” says Daniel Amen, MD, author of Change Your Brain, Change Your Body. “And changing habits in adulthood can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s, and may prevent it entirely.”
Here are some simple steps to help you do just that:
1 Cut back on saturated fat. Saturated fat appears to increase the risk for Alzheimer's disease, possibly by compromising the blood-brain barrier and allowing harmful substances to enter the brain. In one study, peoplewho ate smaller amounts of high-fat dairy products, red meat, organ meat, and butter lowered their chances of developing the disease.
2 Get moving. Study after study points to physical exercise as the most effective way to prevent Alzheimer's disease. Increasing your heart rate by exercising for at least 30 minutes several times each week appears to inhibit Alzheimer's-like brain changes. Try riding a bike, swimming, skiing, walking briskly, or playing tennis—anything you enjoy that you can do consistently, day after day.
3 Savor sardines. Tiny sardines are high in omega-3 fats just like salmon and tuna, but because they're smaller, they're less likely to be contaminated with brain-draining heavy metals that can accumulate in the tissues of larger fish. Buy the boneless, skinless variety packed in water, and use them like tuna: mixed on top of salads, tossed with cooked pasta, or stuffed in a yummy wrap (try our delicious Sardine Salad Wraps recipe, p. 48).
4 Eat like a bird. Many studies suggest that eating less food decreases overall inflammation in the body. Other studies have found that restricting calories—especially carbohydrates—may help prevent Alzheimer's disease by triggering activity in the brain associated with longevity.
5 Mix it up. Because foods aren't eaten in isolation, one study examined the results of a specific set of dietary patterns. It seems that eating a varied diet made up of dark leafy greens, tomatoes, cruciferous vegetables, nuts, fish, poultry, and fruit is the most brain-protective. In particular, focus on fresh fruits and vegetables for their antioxidant value and defense against free radical damage, a key in Alzheimer's prevention.
6 Check your B vitamins. In one study, people with elevated levels of homocysteine—an amino acid that's also linked to heart disease—had nearly double the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. The body naturally takes care of excess homocysteine if it has enough folate and vitamin B12. So if you have a family history of Alzheimer's or other risk factors, consider taking a folate and B12 supplement to keep your homocysteine levels in check. Other supplements that show promise in staving off Alzheimer's disease include Ginkgo biloba, vinpocetine, Huperzine A, acetyl-l-carnitine, and alpha-lipoic acid, says Amen.
7 Look to lysine. New research suggests that the herpes simplex virus type 1—the same virus that causes cold sores—may be associated with Alzheimer's disease. Reactivation and growth of the virus inside nerve cells can contribute to cognitive decline, say scientists. If you get cold sores, start taking the amino acid lysine on a daily basis. Lysine helps inhibit the herpes virus naturally.
8 Flex your mental muscles. "Being bored is not only boring, it's also potentially harmful to the long-term well-being of your brain," says Amen. "In several new studies, people who don't engage in regular learning activities throughout their lives have a higher incidence of Alzheimer's disease." New experiences are always mentally stimulating: try traveling to a foreign country, driving a different route to work, learning to play chess, or taking up a new sport. Or learn to dance: You'll get exercise, and memorizing the moves will put your brain to work.
9 Sober up. Alcohol may increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease, and drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, benzodiazepines, and prescription painkillers diminish brain function and damage neurons, says Amen. "Educate kids early about the dangers of drugs and alcohol," he adds. "Adults should avoid recreational drugs, take prescription medications with caution, and limit alcohol consumption to no more than one to two normal-sized drinks per week."
10 Protect your head. Brain injuries—even ones that don't result in concussion—can cause lasting damage and lead to Alzheimer's disease. Helmets only offer partial protection. "If your head hits the ground or a hard surface, it shakes the brain inside the skull, with our without a helmet," says Amen. "Inside the skull are a whole lot of sharp, bony ridges—and a helmet can't protect your brain from those."
11 Catch some rays. Decreased levels of vitamin D can increase Alzheimer's risk. The best way to get more is exposure to the sun, but wearing sunscreen inhibits the skin's production of vitamin D. The American Medical Association recommends 10 minutes of direct sun exposure, without sunscreen, several times each week. If you're worried about burning, consider a vitamin D supplement; the current recommendation is 400 IU per day, but most experts agree that as much as 2,000 IU per day is more appropriate. Ask your health care provider to recommend the best amount for you.
12 Rethink your cookware. Although aluminum cookware hasn't been definitively linked to Alzheimer's, many studies confirm that aluminum concentrations in the brain are associated with increased risk. "Aluminum is toxic to brain function and one would assume less is better," says Amen. Consider switching to stainless steel cookware and avoiding other sources of aluminum such as tap water and certain drugs.
Sardine Salad Wraps
This "brainy" food works as a lunch, snack, or appetizer.
6 small scallions, thinly sliced
1 celery stalk, minced
1/2 cup diced red pepper
2 Tbs. sunflower seeds
4 Tbs. mayonnaise
2 Tbs. minced parsley
2 6-oz. cans boneless, skinless sardines, packed in water
4 small tortillas
2 cups baby arugula leaves
1 large tomato, sliced
PER SERVING: 482 cal; 25g pro; 26g total fat (5g sat fat); 36g carb; 63mg chol; 1245mg sod; 4g fiber; 5g sugars
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