13 Things Neurologists Do to Help Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer's disease has no cure, but ongoing research shows promise for reducing the risk and delaying the onset of this neurodegenerative disorder
Understand Alzheimer’s disease
Alzheimer’s disease is the leading cause of dementia, accounting for approximately 80% of dementia cases and affecting more than 5.5 million people in the United States. But all dementia is not Alzheimer’s, says David Knopman, MD, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota, and Fellow of the American Academy of Neurology. Dementia is a general term used to describe a set of symptoms that may include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving, or language. Alzheimer’s is a physical disease that targets the brain, causing problems with memory, thinking, and behavior. It is also age-related (symptoms usually start at age 65) and progressive, as symptoms usually worsen over time. Research shows that plaques and tangles two proteins that build up and block connections between nerve cells and eventually kill nerve cells in the brain, cause Alzheimer’s symptoms.
Get enough sleep
When you toss and turn all night, levels of brain-damaging proteins in the cerebrospinal fluid can rise: A 2017 study in Brain suggests that those with chronic sleep problems during middle age may increase their risk of Alzheimer’s later in life. “You have to commit to the importance of sleep,” says Gayatri Devi, MD, neurologist, clinical professor of neurology, Downstate Medical Center. “I prioritize sleep as one of the most important activities I do—I will leave a party early in order to get a good night’s sleep.”
Stay socially active
Say yes to those social invitations! A 2019 study published in PLOS Medicine found that social activity with friends in your 60s could lower your risk of dementia by 12%. “There is something intrinsically valuable about social engagement,” says Dr. Knopman. “It makes sense that those who are more engaged, especially socially, will think more positively and have a better outlook on life.”
People with advanced degrees have a lower risk of Alzheimer’s, according to 2017 research published in the BMJ. Education seems to build a “cognitive reserve,” which enables the brain to better resist neurological damage. “Higher education has a powerful effect,” says Dr. Knopman. It’s never too late—check out the continuing education courses offered online or near you.
Learn a second language
Speaking more than one language can protect against Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, according to 2017 research published in Clinical Interventions in Aging. While no one is sure why a second language helps so much, Dr. Knopman theorizes that the effort to communicate bilingually is like a workout for the brain, helping preserve gray matter and neurons.
Do it yourself
Challenging your brain in new ways can enhance memory as you age. Dr. Devi has her own take on this: “If there is a problem with the phone or the plumbing, I will try to fix it,” she says. “If I try to figure out how to fix this on my own, it is good for my brain.” Right now she’s designing and building a window seat. “It is a way to keep different parts of my brain thriving.”
Exercise crucial to your wellness and your brain. Research published in Cureus in 2020, found that people who exercise regularly can slow cognitive decline. According to the Alzheimer’s Society, the combined results of 11 studies indicate that regular exercise can reduce the risk of developing dementia by about 30%; it drops the risk of Alzheimer’s by 45%. “When you are physically active, you burn more calories and you’re less likely to be obese,” explains Dr. Knopman. “You’ll have better cardiovascular health because you are pushing your heart rate.”
Take care of your heart
“What is good for the heart is good for the brain,” says Dr. Devi. Conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol, which increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, may also increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, and a 2017 study in JAMA found that middle-aged people with risk factors for heart attacks and stroke are also more likely to develop changes in the brain that can lead to the disease. “Anything that keeps the heart healthy is directly related to brain health,” Dr. Devi says. It also reduces the risk of stroke, which can cause it’s own kind of dementia—vascular dementia.
Lower your stress levels
Persistent stress can take a toll on the brain, and 2018 research published in Neurobiology of Stress indicates that chronic stress can accelerate Alzheimer’s disease. When you’re stressed, your body releases cortisol, a hormone linked to memory trouble. In addition, experts have found that stress can lead to conditions such as depression and anxiety—which also ups the risk for dementia, according to research in Current Opinion in Psychiatry. “Eliminating stress helps reduce the amount of cortisol and optimizes glucose utilization, which your brain needs for food,” says Dr. Devi.
Try the MIND diet
A combination of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, the MIND diet is designed specifically for brain health. (MIND is short for Mediterranean-DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay.) The diet is pretty pleasant: You eat at least three servings of whole grains a day, two portions of vegetables (one of which must be a leafy green), snack on nuts, eat lean proteins like chicken and fish, berries, and have a glass of wine a day. According to research in Alzheimer’s & Dementia, those who adhered to the diet rigorously were able to lower their risk of cognitive decline later in life. You can’t trust all diets, warns Dr. Knopman, but he likes this approach: “I tell my patients that if you follow a reasonable diet with lots of fresh fruits and vegetable that balances different food groups, and avoid obesity, you will be OK.”
Get your snoring checked out
Another way to wreck your sleep without realizing it is with sleep apnea. According to the National Institutes of Health, sleep apnea occurs when a person’s upper airway becomes blocked repeatedly during sleep, reducing or completely stopping airflow. Many factors—from obesity to large tonsils to neuromuscular disorders—can cause sleep apnea. Sleep apnea not only prevents restful sleep, but untreated it can increase the risk of developing certain health conditions. “If left untreated, sleep apnea has significant cardiovascular consequences and consequences of mental function,” says Dr. Knopman.
Protect your head
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there is a strong link between serious head trauma and developing Alzheimer’s later in life, especially if the injury involves loss of consciousness. A 2017 review of research in PLOS One suggests head injuries that require medical attention may increase the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Wear a helmet while cycling, make your home fall-proof, and always use a seat belt to help protect your noggin.
Have some tea
Green tea has loads of health benefits—including some for your brain. A 2019 systematic review in Nutrients found that green tea might reduce the risk of dementia. And research in the Journal of the American Chemical Society found that it’s a compound in the beverage that can disrupt the formation of toxic plaques that contribute to Alzheimer’s disease.
- Alzheimer's Association: "Facts and Figures"
- David Knopman, MD, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota, and Fellow of the American Academy of Neurology.
- Alzheimer's Association: "What Is Alzheimer’s Disease?"
- Alzheimer's Association: "Earlier Diagnosis"
- Gayatri Devi, MD, neurologist, clinical professor of neurology, Downstate Medical Center
- Colorectal Cancer Alliance: "Determine your risk — and practice prevention"
- PLOS Medicine: "Association of social contact with dementia and cognition: 28-year follow-up of the Whitehall II cohort study"
- BMJ: "Modifiable pathways in Alzheimer’s disease: Mendelian randomisation analysis"
- Clinical Interventions in Aging: "Bilingualism as a strategy to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease"
- Cureus: "The Neuroprotective Effects of Exercise on Cognitive Decline: A Preventive Approach to Alzheimer Disease"
- Alzheimer's Society: "Physical exercise and dementia"
- JAMA: "Association Between Midlife Vascular Risk Factors and Estimated Brain Amyloid Deposition"
- Neurobiology of Stress: "Chronic stress as a risk factor for Alzheimer's disease: Roles of microglia-mediated synaptic remodeling, inflammation, and oxidative stress"
- Current Opinion in Psychiatry: "Can anxiety damage the brain?"
- Alzheimer's & Dementia: "MIND diet slows cognitive decline with aging."
- National Institutes of Health: "Sleep Apnea"
- Alzheimer's Association: "Can Treating Sleep Problems Lower Dementia Risk?"
- Plos One: "Head Injury as a Risk Factor for Dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of 32 Observational Studies"
- Journal of the American Chemical Society: "Molecular Mechanism for the (−)-Epigallocatechin Gallate-Induced Toxic to Nontoxic Remodeling of Aβ Oligomers"
- Nutrients: "Green Tea Intake and Risks for Dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease, Mild Cognitive Impairment, and Cognitive Impairment: A Systematic Review"