Preventing Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia—or Slowing its Progress

Senior Exercise and Fitness Tips
June 15, 2021
Senior Exercise and Fitness Tips
June 15, 2021

Group of seniors making activities inside the hospice

Worried about Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia? These strategies can improve brain health as you age, reduce your risk of dementia, or delay its progression if you’ve already been diagnosed.

Can Alzheimer’s and dementia be prevented or slowed?

7While you may have been told that all you can do is hope for the best and wait for a pharmaceutical cure, the truth is much more encouraging. Promising research shows that there are steps you can take to both reduce your risk of developing symptoms of Alzheimer’s and other dementias, or slow the process of deterioration if you’ve already been diagnosed.

By identifying and controlling your personal risk factors and making simple but effective lifestyle changes, you can maximize your chances of lifelong brain health and preserve your cognitive abilities for longer.

Alzheimer’s is a complex disease with multiple risk factors. Some, like your age and genetics, are outside your control. However, there are seven pillars for a brain-healthy lifestyle that are within your control:

  1. Regular exercise
  2. Social engagement
  3. Healthy diet
  4. Mental stimulation
  5. Quality sleep
  6. Stress management
  7. Vascular health

Experts now believe that the risk of Alzheimer’s is not limited to old age, but in fact can start in the brain long before symptoms are detected, often in middle age. That means that it’s never too early to start taking care of your brain health.

The more you strengthen each of the seven pillars in your daily life, the longer—and stronger—your brain will stay working. You’ll also be better able to reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia or delay the onset of more severe symptoms.

Pillar #1: Regular exercise

According to the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation, regular physical exercise can reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by up to 50 percent. What’s more, exercise can also slow further deterioration in those who have already started to develop cognitive problems. Exercise protects against Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia by stimulating the brain’s ability to maintain old connections as well as make new ones.

Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week. The ideal plan involves a combination of cardio exercise and strength training. Good activities for beginners include walking and swimming.

Build muscle to pump up your brain. Moderate levels of weight and resistance training not only increase muscle mass but also help you maintain brain health. For those over 65, adding 2-3 strength sessions to your weekly routine may cut your risk of Alzheimer’s in half.

Include balance and coordination exercises. Head injuries from falls are an increasing risk as you age, which in turn increases your risk for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. As well as protecting your head when you exercise (wearing a sports helmet when cycling, for example), balance and coordination exercises can help you stay agile and avoid spills. Try yoga, Tai Chi, or exercises using balance balls.

Pillar #2: Social engagement

Human beings are highly social creatures. We don’t thrive in isolation, and neither do our brains. Staying socially engaged may even protect against symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in later life, so make developing and maintaining a strong network of friends a priority.

You don’t need to be a social butterfly or the life of the party, but you do need to regularly connect face-to-face with someone who cares about you and makes you feel heard. While many of us become more isolated as we get older, it’s never too late to meet others and develop new friendships:

  • Volunteer.
  • Join a club or social group.
  • Visit your local community center or senior center.
  • Take group classes (such as at the gym or a community college).
  • Get to know your neighbors.
  • Make a weekly date with friends.
  • Get out (go to the park, museums, and other public places).

Pillar #3: Healthy diet

In Alzheimer’s disease, inflammation and insulin resistance injure neurons and inhibit communication between brain cells. Alzheimer’s is sometimes described as “diabetes of the brain,” and a growing body of research suggests a strong link between metabolic disorders and the signal processing systems. By adjusting your eating habits, however, you can help reduce inflammation and protect your brain.

  • Manage your weight.
  • Cut down on sugar.
  • Enjoy a Mediterranean diet.
  • Get plenty of omega-3 fats.
  • Stock up on fruit and vegetables.
  • Cook at home often.
  • Drink only in moderation.

Pillar #4: Mental stimulation

It’s important to continue learning new things and challenging your brain throughout life. Whether you’re looking to prevent the onset of dementia or delay its progression when it comes to your brain the key is to “use it or lose it.” In the groundbreaking NIH ACTIVE study, older adults who received as few as 10 sessions of mental training not only improved their cognitive functioning in daily activities in the months after the training but continued to show long-lasting improvements 10 years later.

Activities involving multiple tasks or requiring communication, interaction, and organization offer the greatest benefits. Set aside time each day to stimulate your brain:

  • Learn something new.
  • Raise the bar for an existing activity.
  • Practice memorization techniques.
  • Get plenty of omega-3 fats.
  • Enjoy strategy games, puzzles, and riddles.
  • Follow the road less traveled.

Pillar #5: Quality sleep

There are a number of links between poor sleep patterns and the development of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Some studies have emphasized the importance of quality sleep for flushing out toxins in the brain. Others have linked poor sleep to higher levels of beta-amyloid in the brain, a sticky protein that can further disrupt the deep sleep necessary for memory formation.

If nightly sleep deprivation is slowing your thinking and or affecting your mood, you may be at greater risk of developing or deteriorating symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. To help improve your sleep:

  • Establish a regular sleep schedule.
  • Set the mood.
  • Create a relaxing bedtime ritual.
  • Quiet your inner chatter.
  • Get screened for sleep apnea.

Pillar #6: Stress management

Chronic or persistent stress can take a heavy toll on the brain, leading to shrinkage in a key memory area, hampering nerve cell growth, and increasing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Yet simple stress management tools can minimize its harmful effects and protect your brain.

  • Breathe!
  • Schedule daily relaxation activities.
  • Nourish inner peace.
  • Make fun a priority.
  • Keep your sense of humor.

Pillar #7: Vascular health

There’s more and more evidence to indicate that what’s good for your heart is also good for your brain. Maintaining your cardiovascular health can be crucial in protecting your brain and lowering your risk for different types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. And of course, addressing heart-health issues can also help you to lower your risk for a future heart attack or stroke.