None of us want to have troubles with memory or thinking as we age. Mandy Oaklander wrote a fantastic article called Untangling Alzheimer’s in Time Magazine. It covers the current Alzheimer’s disease scientific landscape and quickly pivots to why lifestyle changes can be the best way to protect our brain as we age.
Experts still don’t know exactly what causes Alzheimer’s. Back in 1992 one idea, called the amyloid cascade hypothesis, took hold. It suggested that the excessive buildup of a protein on the brain – amyloid, which clumps together into plaques- is the main driver of Alzheimer’s. The buildup causes another protein, tau, to twist into tangles and cut off the supply of nutrients to brain cells, ultimately killing them. This hypothesis propelled the search for a pill that could stop these plaques and tangles from forming, or undo them once they’re there.
More recently, scientific studies have found that plaques and tangles are sometimes found in people who don’t have symptoms of dementia. Other research has suggested that amyloid isn’t enough to explain all- even possibly most- Alzheimer’s cases. A 2015 article published in the journal Nature Neuroscience made the case for rejecting the entire amyloid hypothesis.
Emerging research finds that other factors such as heart health, sleep quality and physical activity – are emerging as potential ways to help prevent dementia in some people.
In a 2014 article published by The Lancet Neurology, researchers projected that almost a third of Alzheimer’s cases worldwide – 9.6 million of them- could be prevented by things that are within most people’s power to change: hypertension in middle age, diabetes, obesity, physical activity, depression, smoking and low education were all found to play a role. Of these factors, heart health seems to be the most important. According to an estimate published in the journal Hypertension, if every middle-aged American with high blood pressure got properly treated for it, about 25% of dementia would be wiped out.
The link between the heart and the brain is logical when you think about it. The brain is a sea of blood vessels- and because neutrons require a lot of oxygen to fire properly, the brain uses 20% of the blood pumped to the heart. For that reason, anything that affects the blood flow affects the brain.
By taking factors like these more seriously, scientists are forming a whole new Alzheimer’s attack plan: improve the health of the heart and you’ll have a big impact on the brain. Lifestyle changes won’t ever completely eradicate the disease, but they may be the best prevention we know of right now.
These simple lifestyle changes may help protect your brain as you age:
- SHORE UP YOUR HEART – Of all the things you could do, reducing the risk of heart disease has the strongest evidence of benefits for the brain. That means treating hypertension, high lipids, cholesterol, obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
- EMPHASIZE EXERCISE – Physical activity reduces the risk and severity of cognitive decline. Aerobic exercise has been shown to grow the volume of certain brain regions that tend to shrink during aging.
- LEARN NEW THINGS – Engaging intellectually with the world across a lifetime through activities like writing letters and reading has been linked in brain autopsies to better cognitive health in old age.
- BE SOCIAL – Richer lives are associated with higher levels of cognition. Loneliness, conversely, is connected with poorer brain health.
- TREAT DEPRESSION – Depression in middle age – which is when its most prevalent – is linked to twice the risk of cognitive decline, though it’s not clear if that’s a cause or an effect.
- SLEEP WELL – Studies have found a relationship between poor sleep and risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s. Improving poor sleep appears to reduce these risks.