How can I reduce my risk of Alzheimer's disease?

“People who are concerned about something like memory loss should seek the help of a qualified physician as soon as possible so that he or she can help identify what’s really going on,” says Joshua Grill, PhD, director of the Katherine and Benjamin Kagan Treatment Development Program in the Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research at UCLA. “While some people are genetically predisposed to Alzheimer’s disease, it’s not certain that they will develop the disease, and they may be able to take steps now to reduce their risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life.”

Says psychiatrist Gary Small, MD, director of the UCLA Center on Aging, “A healthy lifestyle is brain protective. If people really understood this and adopted even one healthy behavior as a result -- something as simple as taking a brisk 20-minute walk four times a week, or eating fresh fruits and vegetables every day -- it’s estimated that we would see a million fewer cases of Alzheimer’s in five years.”

Anthony Cirillo
Geriatric Medicine Specialist

German researchers found that elderly adults who consume about two alcoholic beverages per day are at a significantly lower risk of developing Alzheimer's disease and dementia than non-drinkers. Researchers said that study subjects were 30% less likely to develop dementia, and 40% less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease. 

Researchers surmised that older men and women who drink alcohol sensibly in old age also have a healthier lifestyle in terms of physical, dietary, and mental perspectives. So the question remains: Is it really the drinking or the fact that responsible adults take better care of themselves?

These proven steps can protect you from this thought-robbing, you-erasing disease:
  • Order the walnut salad and grilled fish with couscous for dinner and have fruit for dessert. Then, take that stroll. Cutting back on saturated fat (ice cream, butter, full-fat milk and cheese, red meat) and getting more brain-pampering omega-3s (fish), monounsaturated fats (nuts) and enough folate, vitamin B12 and vitamin E (fresh produce, whole grains) could cut your Alzheimer's risk by 38%. Combine your healthy meal with a 30-minute walk and that number jumps to 60%.
  • Get serious about LDL cholesterol, blood pressure and diabetes. All three threaten the arteries that deliver oxygen-rich blood to your brain cells. Ignoring them boosts your risk for dementia by up to 46%. Make preventing or reversing them a mission.
  • Enjoy a second mug of coffee. Two mugs a day, or three to six small cups, could lower your risk by 67%. Why? Something in coffee helps protect you. What, exactly? We don't know yet.
  • If you still smoke, call it quits. Smoking is the worst for Alzheimer's. A two-packs-a-day habit boosts your risk by 157%. If you've tried to quit and failed, try again. North Americans, on average, require seven attempts to quit for good.
  • Pop some good fat. Your brain is 60% fat -- half of it the type of omega-3 fatty acid we take every day: DHA. People with mild memory decline see their brains become three years younger when they take 900 milligrams a day for just six months.
  • Moderate drinking (one drink a day for women, two for men) protects your brain only to a point. If you or a loved one has signs of mild cognitive problems (memory slips, slowed thinking), it's time to toast with sparkling cider instead of champagne. Just a couple of alcoholic beverages a week can double dementia risk if there are signs of trouble.

A recent study found that older people who weren't very active were at an increased risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, says Dr. Robin Miller. Watch this to video to find out how people were able to lower that risk.

In recent years, research has revealed several lines of evidence to support the hypothesis that cholesterol plays a role in Alzheimer's. One of these is the finding from population-based observation studies that people who take cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins have a considerably lower risk of developing Alzheimer's. Research in experimental animals has shown that statins reduce beta amyloid accumulation in the brain but only at doses that far exceed those taken by people for cholesterol control. Because high doses carry significant risks, scientists are trying to find a way to stimulate these effects using lower doses of statins.

Toward that end, researchers have dug deep inside nerve cells to unravel the chain of events through which statin drugs interact with beta amyloid. They have learned that statins activate the good pathway of amyloid processing, stimulating the production of harmless amyloid at the expense of the toxic form. Now they are screening other related compounds to identify any that may have similar effects and testing them in an animal model of Alzheimer's.

If we can identify other compounds that also activate the good pathway without unacceptable side effects, such drugs may—either by themselves or in combination with statins—effectively lower a-beta deposition. This would be a highly novel approach to treating or possibly preventing Alzheimer's.

There is some evidence that moderate alcohol consumption reduces risk for Alzheimer's disease. A Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) study, for example, found that people over age 65 who drank up to one alcoholic beverage a day had about half the risk of Alzheimer's disease as nondrinkers. Another study reported that resveratrol, a compound in red wine, broke down beta-amyloid in laboratory experiments—suggesting that red wine in particular may be protective. But further study is needed, as the protective doses in laboratory mice are impossible to achieve in humans.  In the meantime, experts do not recommend drinking alcohol to fend off Alzheimer's disease. Heavy drinkers in the JAMA study had a 22% higher Alzheimer's risk than the nondrinkers.

Additionally, people with high total cholesterol face increased odds of Alzheimer's disease later in life. As a result, there is some evidence that statins, a commonly prescribed class of cholesterol-lowering drugs, may reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease in some populations. Consistent with this research, a study published in Nature Genetics found that genes that influence Alzheimer's risk in the elderly tend to be involved with cholesterol and inflammation.

Dr. Gregory Petsko

There are a number of things you can do to reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, says neurologist Dr. Greg Petsko. Learn what they are by watching this video.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.