Get Better Sleep and 5 More Ways to Help Lower Your Alzheimer’s Risk

No, you can't change your genes or stop aging—but doing this may help.

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An estimated 5.8 million Americans are spending their golden years with Alzheimer’s disease, a degenerative brain condition and type of dementia that causes loss of memory and eventually, the ability to function. But there's good news: a number of research studies suggest, by making certain changes to improve your overall health, you may reduce your risk for developing dementia later in life.

“While there currently aren’t any medications to prevent Alzheimer’s, cohort studies have shown there are lifestyle changes that might protect brain health, and these are being studied further,” says Kirk Daffner, MD, director of the Center for Brain/Mind Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. “Improving cardiovascular health, getting regular exercise, following a healthy diet and reducing stress are among the ways people can cut their dementia risk.”

A 2017 major review published in The Lancet supported this, claiming a third of dementia cases may potentially be prevented or delayed. Around the same time, a series of reviews in Annals of Internal Medicine said that evidence was encouraging, but inconclusive. Researchers noted, however, that making the changes was worth the effort anyway, for their heart and overall health benefits.

So, to help keep your brain healthy, consider the following lifestyle changes:

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Prioritize sleep

Getting a good night’s sleep is important no matter your age, but research suggests it may help ward off the changes in the brain that can lead to Alzheimer’s.

A 2017 study in Neurology found that reductions in REM sleep in people older than 60 were associated with increased risk of dementia. Meanwhile, a 2018 study of people with no Alzheimer’s signs published in JAMA Neurology suggested that sleep-wake disturbances may be linked to increased deposits of amyloid proteins in the brain, which characterize the early stages of the disease. More recently, another study published in March 2018 in JAMA Neurology found that excessive daytime sleepiness measured in older adults without dementia was also associated with the buildup of amyloid plaques.

It’s important to note that the research hasn’t yet established a cause-and-effect relationship between poor sleep and encroaching Alzheimer’s. And deteriorating sleep quality is often itself a natural consequence of aging. In other words, there’s no need to worry if you get an occasional bad night’s sleep. But the potential connection reinforces the importance of maintaining good sleep habits as you age and letting your doctor know if you consistently have trouble falling—and staying—asleep.

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Eat for better health

While diet alone can't prevent Alzheimer's disease, a healthy eating regimen like the MIND Diet—a combination of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet to control blood pressure—can help lower dementia risk. “A Mediterranean diet full of plant-based foods, whole grains, beans, fish, nuts, olive oil and leafy vegetables has been shown to lower the risk of cognitive decline,” says Dr. Daffner. In fact, one 2015 study in the journal Alzheimer's & Dementia found the MIND Diet "substantially" put the brakes on cognitive decline.

Bonus: studies have shown the Mediterranean diet is linked to a lower risk of heart attack and stroke, as well. This is especially important since risk factors for heart disease—including elevated levels of cholesterol and blood sugar, as well as high blood pressure—have also been linked to an increased risk of dementia.

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Avoid isolation

As people age, their social circles often shrink, leading to isolation—itself connected to a host of health issues including depression, poor sleep, a compromised immune system and of course, dementia. But remaining socially active can help ease many of those problems, including the loss of cognitive function.

“Socialization is an important aspect in staying well emotionally and cognitively,” says Mary Sano, PhD, director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center and Associate Dean of Clinical Research at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in the Bronx, New York. “The key feature of maintaining social interactions is making connections that require give and take with others.”

So, actively look for ways to increase time with people: specifically schedule regular time with family and friends, volunteer with community organizations or join a club focused on your passion. Websites like VolunteerMatch or Meetup can help you find the right fit.

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Aim for regular exercise

Being physically active can reduce the risk of heart disease and cognitive problems. Most adults should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or a minimum of 75 minutes of more vigorous exercise a week, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Getting more is even better, but any amount of activity is better than none. Every bit counts towards your weekly total—even a two-minute walk. 

“The key is to aim for consistent, regular exercise that gets your heart rate up,” Daffner says.

One 2018 analysis of Alzheimer’s studies found that regular moderate-to-vigorous aerobic activity, such as brisk walking, may help slow cognitive decline in people at risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

A 2019 study published in Neurology builds on these findings, suggesting that being physically active can help older adults keep their memory and thinking skills sharp. For the study, researchers asked 454 adults 70-years and older to perform cognitive tests once a year for about two decades. Of these participants, 191 had been diagnosed with dementia and exhibited behavioral signs of the condition, such as sleep and activity disturbances.

Towards the end of the study, the participants also wore activity monitors that tracked all daily movement, including exercise as well as routine chores and activities, for an average of two years. Those who logged the highest levels of activity performed better on their annual thinking and memory tests, the researchers found.

After the volunteers passed away, brain biopsies were performed to check for certain proteins, which are known biomarkers associated with Alzheimer's disease. The study showed that the active participants outperformed those who were sedentary on cognitive testing—even when their biopsies detected Alzheimer's-linked biomarkers in the brain.

Scientists are still investigating and working to understand the complex connection between physical activity and Alzheimer’s disease. It's possible that a decline in brain function could also precipitate, or lead to more sedentary behavior.

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Work on reducing stress

While some studies have shown chronic stress can negatively impact physical health, we now know it can also increase a person’s risk of cognitive decline. “Abnormally high or prolonged spikes of the stress hormone, cortisol, can harm brain structures critical for memory as we grow older,” Daffner says.

Though stress reduction hasn't been explicitly linked with preventing Alzheimer's disease, it could improve your overall health, which may help reduce your odds of developing issues with brain function. “It’s important for people to learn ways to manage their stress, for example through practices such as mindfulness meditation or exercises such as tai chi,” says Daffner.

Tracking your stress can help pinpoint triggers and periods of high stress; the Sharecare app (available for iOS and Android) includes manual and voice-activated stress trackers to get you started.

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Take charge of other health conditions

Often, what’s good for your overall health is also good for your brain. “Whether you have high cholesterol, or diabetes, are overweight, or have a psychiatric or psychological issue like depression or anxiety, keeping your medical conditions under control can help to reduce your risk of cognitive loss and dementia,” Dr. Sano says.

For example, research has shown that diabetes is a risk factor for dementia and that untreated mid-life depression is also tied to a person’s chances—it isn't clear, however, whether depression specifically contributes to the odds of dementia, or if it's an early symptom. Speak to your doctor about treating underlying medical problems and addressing mental health issues; they can recommend specialists if necessary, including a good therapist.

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