Researchers believe that Alzheimer’s disease is preventable with lifestyle interventions. Learn how to decrease your risks with this six-part plan.
Alzheimer’s disease, a devastating type of dementia that causes memory loss and changes in behavior, involves the deterioration of neuronal networks, first in the memory area of the brain, and then spreading to areas controlling reasoning and behavior.
Simply put, nerve cells in the brain die, and because there is no way to revive or replace dead brain cells, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease.
Scientists don’t yet know exactly what causes Alzheimer’s to begin in the brain, but they are making great progress in identifying factors that can slow or prevent its development. In an interview with the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund, Dr. Rudolph Tanzi, director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Harvard Medical School, and faculty member of the Harvard Program in Neuroscience Affiliate at Massachusetts General Hospital, shared the components of the SHIELD plan, six lifestyle habits that you can adopt to promote good brain health and possibly prevent or delay the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr. Tanzi says the SHIELD plan is not a guarantee. As the name suggests, it is a shield that may help protect you.
“SHIELD is based on the epidemiology data, the best we know today, of what you can do to promote brain health and reduce your risk,” he said.
The SHIELD Plan
A plaque called amyloid builds up in your brain throughout the day. More plaque is formed when you are awake than asleep. The plaque functions as a protector of brain cells, but when too much plaque develops it can interfere with brain cell function, causing damage. When you sleep, the production of amyloid decreases, and the brain flushes out the excess plaque. Dr. Tanzi calls deep sleep “mental floss.” Try to get at least 8 hours of sleep to allow the brain time to perform this important task. If you can’t sleep for an 8-hour stretch, a good nap can help.
- Handle Stress
Stress takes a toll on the body, and especially the brain. You can’t avoid stressors in life, but you can develop healthy ways of dealing with stress. Dr. Tanzi recommends meditation, sitting quietly for anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour, and clearing your mind of thoughts. Try focusing on your breathing, and when your thoughts start to wander, bring your attention back to your breath. Developing constructive tasks or hobbies that help take your mind off of your worries is another good strategy.
Interacting with others is important for stimulating your brain and for keeping loneliness at bay. Loneliness causes additional stress on your body. Stay in touch with family members, take part in activities at your retirement community or in your neighborhood, and maintain a social network of friends. Check out this list of ideas for coping with loneliness.
Exercise is good for preventing cardiovascular disease, and Dr. Tanzi says, “What’s good for the heart is good for the brain.” Exercise clears out plaque from arteries, reduces inflammation, and stimulates the production of nerve cells. In studies on mice, exercise reduces cognitive decline. Exercise is also one of the best ways to deal with stress, anxiety, and depression. Try going for regular walks, pushing yourself to build up to a brisk pace for at least 20 minutes, or try these easy exercises you can do at home.
Staying mentally active is crucial to preventing the loss of nerve connections in the brain, which is the factor with the highest correlation to Alzheimer’s and dementia. Studying or learning new skills helps build new synapses, or neural connections, in the brain.
“Building up your synaptic reserves is like putting money in the bank,” Dr. Tanzi said, “The more synapses you have, the more you can afford to lose before you lose it.” Try a new hobby, take an online class, learn a new language, or check out AARP’s Staying Sharp page.
Perhaps the most interesting and surprising results of research on brain health is the connection between the digestive system and the brain. Scientists are learning that the gut microbiome, the good bacteria that live in your digestive tract, actually communicates with the brain. Called the gut-brain axis, it shows us just how important diet is to mental health. Fiber is the most important ingredient in the gut-brain axis, as fiber promotes the healthy bacteria that make up your gut microbiome. A diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and lean proteins like legumes, fish, and poultry, and low in processed foods, red meat, sugar, and artificial sweeteners is best. Diets like the Mediterranean Diet and the DASH Diet meet these recommendations.
Dr. Tanzi says that while Alzheimer’s symptoms may not show up until a person is in their 60’s, 70’s or 80’s, the disease really begins in their 40’s, possibly resulting from lifestyle habits we begin in our 20’s, so it’s never too early or too late to adopt these lifestyle changes.
In his book, Two Weeks to a Younger Brain, Dr. Gary Small, director of UCLA’s Longevity Center, concurs. Dr. Small says that in Blue Zones, areas of the world where people tend to live to be 100 or more, such as Sardinia, Italy, Okinawa, Japan, and Loma Linda, California, the common factor is the people lead healthy lifestyles, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, managing stress, and staying mentally fit. He says research confirms that our daily lifestyle habits impact our brain health and that by incorporating healthy habits, we can boost our memory and keep our brains young.