3 Things You Can Do Now to Prevent Alzheimer's Disease Later
Get Great Sleep
Many studies have found a link between scant sleep and cognitive decline. One explanation: A good night's slumber seems to have a protective effect against the beta-amyloid clumps, or brain "plaques," that are one of the defining characteristics of Alzheimer's. These harmful proteins build up while the brain is hard at work; however, sleep appears to help counteract their production and clear them away, explains Andrew Budson, MD, a professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine and coauthor of Seven Steps to Managing Your Memory.
The takeaway: Aim for seven to eight hours of sleep per night, says Budson. You'll not only encourage your brain to take out its trash, but you'll also give it the rest it needs to store memories and be ready to learn more the next day.
Subtract the Added Sugar
Evolving data suggest that a diet high in refined carbohydrates and added sugar is a drag on your cognitive powers. These foods drive up insulin levels, and chronically high insulin levels are associated with Alzheimer's—in fact, the disease is sometimes referred to as "type 3 diabetes." "We're trying to better understand the connection," says Budson, "but there's no doubt the correlation is there: Spikes in blood sugar are not healthy for the brain." A recent study that looked at the long-term data of more than 5,000 people found that the higher their blood glucose levels, the more likely they were to suffer cognitive decline; in a 2013 study in Neurology, researchers hypothesized that chronically high levels may damage the hippocampus, which plays a key role in memory processing.
The takeaway: If you're really serious about trying to prevent Alzheimer's, especially if you have a family history of the disease, give up added sugar and processed treats altogether. "Instead of brownies or cookies at the end of a meal," says Budson, a strong proponent of the Mediterranean diet for brain health, "try fruits or nuts." Strawberries, apricots, dates, cashews, hazelnuts, almonds: They're all nutrient-rich, and tasty, too.
Drink to Your Health... Then Stop
You may have heard that alcohol is bad for your brain—and good for it. Here's the deal: Red wine contains a compound called resveratrol, which may sound familiar to you because of all the fevered attention it began receiving in the 1990s for supposedly helping people live healthier longer. The hype has cooled a bit, but some scientists continue to speculate that resveratrol may help your brain stay healthy longer, possibly protecting it against cognitive decline by suppressing inflammation.
On the other hand, too much alcohol may do the opposite, sparking inflammation within the brain's frontal lobes, the area that organizes the storage and retrieval of memories. Drinking may also interfere with cellular repair in this region, Budson says. What's more, too many pours can cause damage to the liver, pancreas, and heart—all of which can impact brain health and predispose you to strokes. A 2018 study found that alcohol use disorders were a major risk factor for all dementias, particularly early-onset.
The takeaway: Enjoy a drink at dinner—especially in the company of friends and family, since being socially engaged is another way to help your brain age well.
Here's something to ponder:
It turns out that devoted meditators have different brains from the rest of us. They tend to be larger in volume, have stronger connections between regions associated with attention and learning, and possibly age more slowly. In one 2016 study, the brains of 50-year-old long-term meditators appeared to be seven and a half years younger than those of their same-age nonmeditating peers. It's not clear whether meditation causes the differences or if people with certain brain structures are more likely to meditate, says study coauthor Nicolas Cherbuin, PhD, director of the neuroimaging and brain lab at Australian National University, but it's a fact that meditation can help keep brain-eroding stress at bay. Meditation-phobes can try to stay on track with this popular hack: Come up with a one-word mantra, like peace, and repeat it to yourself throughout your meditation practice. This will keep you in the zone, where you can feel your mind expand.