Can using your brain prevent Alzheimer's disease?
Keeping your brain healthy as you age is easier than you might think; in fact, there are plenty of tips and techniques you can use to keep your brain active. But can using your brain actually help to prevent Alzheimer's disease? We thought we'd find out.
What is Alzheimer's disease?
Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia. The condition is named after Alois Alzheimer, the doctor who first described it, and today over 520,000 people across the UK are affected.
Alzheimer's occurs when a build up of proteins in the brain causes 'tangles' or 'plaques', leading to a loss of connectivity between nerve cells. Eventually this causes the death of these cells and the loss of brain tissue. Alzheimer's is thought to be triggered by a lack of important brain chemicals responsible for transmitting signals. Unfortunately, it is a progressive disease which damages the brain over time and it can lead to dementia – difficulties with language, problem-solving and thinking, and memory loss.
Who is affected?
Whilst most people who develop the condition are over 65, younger people can experience early on-set Alzheimer's and it's estimated that more than 40,000 people under 65 are affected in the UK. The condition is linked to a combination of different factors, some of which can be controlled. So what are some of the risk factors for Alzheimer's disease?
Did you know that Alzheimer's is almost twice as likely to affect women as men? It's thought that dropping oestrogen levels after menopause could be the reason why more women develop the condition.
Of all the risk factors for Alzheimer's, age is the greatest, with the condition mainly affecting those over 65. If you're older than 65, your risk of developing Alzheimer's doubles every five years.
Health and lifestyle
Whilst you can't do anything about your age or gender, it is possible to make changes to your health and lifestyle which could help to reduce your risk of Alzheimer's. Diabetes, heart problems, stroke, high cholesterol and high blood pressure can all increase your risk of developing Alzheimer's, as can obesity. By maintaining a healthy weight and active lifestyle, you can cut your risk. This means eating a balanced diet, quitting smoking, exercising regularly and drinking in moderation. When we talk about an 'active' lifestyle, we don't just mean physically active, we're talking about mental and social activity too (1)!
Scientists are still investigating whether genetics play a part in the development of Alzheimer's. Inherited Alzheimer's is rare, but if you have a close relative, such as sibling or parent, who was diagnosed after age 65, your risk increases. This doesn't mean you'll definitely develop the condition though; you can reduce your risk with lifestyle changes.
Keeping your brain healthy
The health of our brains is vital to almost everything we do – from sleeping to talking, walking and even how we feel. So how can you keep your brain healthy and reduce your risk of Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia?
Eat a brain-healthy diet
Research shows that high cholesterol could damage brain cells, so stick to a low cholesterol, low fat diet. Good fats, found in olive oil and omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, can actually help to improve brain health, so these should always form part of a healthy diet. Eat plenty of dark vegetables and fruits, packed with antioxidants, which can protect your brain (2).
Stay socially active
Did you know that those who engage regularly in social activity have the healthiest brains (3)? Combining mental and physical activity with social interaction can help to prevent dementia. A study of 800 women and men aged 75 plus showed that those who were more mentally and physically active, with active social lives, reduced their risk of dementia. Why not try volunteering for local community causes, join an interest group, travel, or take part in activities through work to boost your social circle.
Keep your brain working
Altered connections in the brain can lead to mental decline as we get older. But scientists have discovered that low levels of education are linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer's in old age (4). Studying can help to strengthen brain cells and connections, protecting against Alzheimer's and dementia. This doesn't mean that your Oxford degree will provide 100% protection against developing the condition, but it does mean that symptoms may appear later or be less severe, if you are affected.
Researchers have also found that stimulating the brain mentally can help build reserves of brain cells – it could even generate new cells. Try crossword or logic puzzles, reading or writing everyday to boost your brain health, take up gardening (which can help to reduce stress levels), or study at your local adult education centre.
Aerobic exercise can help to improve your body's consumption of oxygen and boost blood flow to the brain, which can be beneficial to brain function. Research shows this can reduce the loss of brain cells in older people. You only need about 30 minutes of physical activity a day, such as cycling, walking, Tai Chi or yoga. This helps to ensure healthy blood flow to the brain, whilst also reducing your risk of diabetes, stroke and other risk factors for Alzheimer's (5).
As researchers race to find a cure for Alzheimer's disease, reducing your stress levels and using your brain more can definitely help to lower you risk of developing the condition as you age. As they say, prevention is better than cure and mental stimulation can help to keep your brain healthy. A study of 2,832 older adults who participated in ten 60 to 75 minute memory and reasoning training sessions showed that not only did cognitive function and memory improve in the months following training, results were still visible more than 10 years later.
It's not just about staying mentally, physically and socially active though. Sleep is also vital to prevent Alzheimer's disease. Not only can nightly sleep deprivation leave you tired, unable to concentrate and moody, it can also increase your risk. Most of us need at least eight hours sleep a night for our brains to function optimally. Take the time to establish a regular sleep routine by trying some of the following:
- Go to bed and get up at the same time everyday
- Take a hot bath (with a few drops of lavender essential oil) before bed
- Ban TVs and PCs from the bedroom
- Limit daytime naps to 30 minutes in the early afternoon
- Switch off electronics an hour before bedtime and try reading to relax and unwind
In conclusion, staying mentally active, in combination with other lifestyle changes, can definitely help to reduce your risk of Alzheimer's disease, and there's no better time to start than right now!
READ THIS NEXT: Is 40 the new 30; which decade of your life is the best