There’s good news and bad news about Alzheimer’s disease. The bad news is that it’s on the rise in the U.S. and projected to triple to more than 15 million sufferers by 2050. The good news is that most people can dramatically lower their risk of developing the brain-wasting condition. “There’s some exciting research that offers hope we’ll have a magic bullet in the future, but while waiting for that people can still do a lot to protect their brains and stave off the symptoms of Alzheimer’s,” says Dr. Gary Small, director of geriatric psychiatry at the UCLA Longevity Center.
In what may seem a paradox, while everybody eventually develops the amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles that disrupt cognitive function in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, not everybody suffers symptoms of the disease.
“Alzheimer’s pathology is the collection of gummy proteins that destroy connections in the brain, and Alzheimer’s symptoms are things like people getting lost driving in their own neighborhood or forgetting the names of their children,” explains neurologist Dr. Majid Fotuhi, Chief Medical Officer of Neurocore Brain Performance Center. “However, the pathology doesn’t always correlate with the symptoms.”
The X-factor is lifestyle, he adds.
“In just the past few years, there’s been a paradigm shift in how we look at the aging of the brain,” Fotuhi tells Newsmax Health. “Since the 1960s, we thought Alzheimer’s was caused by plaques and tangles. But now we know that despite the plaques and tangles, lifestyle choices make a huge difference on whether or not you become demented later in life.”
They key, he says, is the hippocampus, a pair of thumb-sized structures buried deep in the brain that are basically responsible for filing and retrieving memories.
When the hippocampus is robust, it can work around the plaque and tangles. But it naturally shrinks with time – about 0.5 percent a year after age 50 – and various lifestyle factors can accelerate the degeneration.
“The hippocampus is very vulnerable to things like insomnia, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, a poor diet and lack of exercise,” says Fotuhi, author of the book “Boost Your Brain.” “The more risk factors it’s exposed to, the more it shrinks.”
Fortunately, the experts say you can lower your risk factors through:
Physical exercise: Exercise is “the single most effective way to keep the brain young,” says Fotuhi. He suggests 45-minute sessions four times a week. Small adds that workouts should include a mix of aerobic, resistance and balance exercises.
Mental exercise: Learning new things and stimulating your brain with puzzles and memory games help to keep the mind sharp. “It’s a case of use it or lose it,” says Fotuhi.
Eating well: Minimize processed foods and sugars to help keep your weight and blood sugar levels under control. “Diabetes doubles dementia risk; obesity quadruples risk,” notes Small, author of the book “Two Weeks to a Younger Brain” and The Mind Health Report newsletter.
Specific nutrients thought to boost brain health include omega-3 fatty acids, resveratrol and vitamins B12, C, D, and E.
Reducing stress: The fight-or-flight hormone cortisol released in stressful situations appears to cause at least temporary memory impairment. The experts recommend regularly practicing relaxation techniques such as meditation, tai chi, yoga and deep breathing exercises.
Sleeping enough: “If you don’t sleep enough, your brain will shrink,” declares Fotuhi. “You have to make sure you get your eight hours, and if you have sleep apnea, you need to have it treated.”
Getting screened: Just like having a colonoscopy to check what’s happening in your bowel, you can get a brain health assessment. “If you do a brain health checkup and find things that need to be fixed, the more time you have to do that, the better,” says Fotuhi.
“It’s never too early and it’s never too late to start protecting the brain,” adds Small. “Modifiable risk factors for Alzheimer’s probably account for half of the cases worldwide.”