shutterstock_132337193sm With Alzheimer’s disease affecting one in three American families and baby boomers entering the age of greatest risk, there is intense interest in finding risk-reducing strategies. Currently there are more than five million Americans living with Alzheimer’s. Those over 65 are at greatest risk, with one in nine developing Alzheimer’s. African Americans and Latinos are at twice the risk.

Mostly outside of our control are known Alzheimer’s risk factors such as genetic and environmental factors. Lifestyle factors, such as physical health and exercise, social engagement, cognitive stimulation, and diet, may offer strategies for Alzheimer’s risk reduction.

Exercise is known to benefit overall health and reduce the risk of many age-related diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke, obesity, and hypertension. Exercise improves blood flow to the brain. Many researchers believe that cardiovascular exercise is the strongest lifestyle intervention for brain health and dementia risk reduction. While 15 – 20 minutes of daily rigorous exercise is optimal, research shows benefits from 30 minutes of walking three times weekly.

Overall physical health is also important. Smoking cessation is critical since it’s one of the biggest lifestyle risk factors. Obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and elevated cholesterol, should also be managed. Rounding out risky health concerns are stress and inadequate or interrupted sleep.

While there is limited research in the area of social engagement, studies suggest protective affects from regular and meaningful interactions. Since people don’t do well in isolation, involvement in groups or clubs, and regular interaction with friends and family, may promote brain health.

Research supports the protective effects of cognitive stimulation. High on the list is formal education such as classroom-type adult education. Also beneficial are challenging or inspiring activities, and those that require new learning or are creative. Of unproven benefit are on-line-type brain-game programs.

Diet is well-recognized as a risk reduction strategy for many chronic illnesses, though has remained of unproven impact on brain health and Alzheimer’s disease. The MIND diet may offer new hope. Developed by Rush nutritional epidemiologists, the MIND diet is a hybrid of the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets. The resulting plant-based diet offers a list of “do’s – ”whole grains, beans, nuts, dark green vegetables, berries, fish, olive oil, and red wine – and “don’ts” – red meat, butter/margarine, cheese, sweets, and fried/fast foods.

When followed closely, this diet reduced risk by 53% and maintained brain function like individuals 7 ½ years their junior. Even more exciting was the 35% risk reduction observed in those who only moderately complied with the MIND diet.

This study is promising but not conclusive – more study needs to be done. While the dementia impact is yet to be proven, the restrictions will certainly reduce the risk of stroke, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, and obesity. So, try incorporating a few of the behaviors into your current diet. You may be able to improve your overall and your brain health by making a few significant changes in your lifestyle.

Richard Elbein

Chief Executive Officer, Alzheimer’s Association, Houston and Southeast Chapter