Heart-Healthy Habits to Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease

By Kathleen Doheny. Medically reviewed by Tom Iarocci, MD. May 7th 2016

Researchers have long suspected that lack of blood flow to the brain and other vascular conditions contribute to Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive condition that robs your memory and other cognitive skills. It makes good medical sense, then, that what’s beneficial for cardiovascular health and blood vessels is also favorable for brain health.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, and with age, fear of getting Alzheimer’s spikes. That’s understandable because most people who get Alzheimer’s are 65 or older, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Every five years after age 65, the risk of Alzheimer’s doubles. After age 85, your risk reaches nearly 50 percent.

Today, more than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s. By 2025, the number of people 65 and older with the disease may total more than 7 million.

Studies show that Americans worry about developing Alzheimer’s more than any other life-threatening disease, including cancer, heart disease and diabetes. While age, heredity and family history are all important Alzheimer’s risk factors, you can do much more than simply worry.

Lowering Your Risk of Dementia

Scientists researching Alzheimer’s disease have found that abnormal structures in the brain called plagues and tangles aren’t the only cause of the condition. Blood vessel problems and inefficient blood circulation to the brain also cause damage.

“Most people who develop Alzheimer’s after age 80 clearly have combined vascular and Alzheimer’s pathology,” says James R. Burke, MD, PhD, professor of neurology and medical director of the Neurology Clinical Research Unit at Duke University School of Medicine. That means pure Alzheimer’s disease without any blood flow or vascular issues is rare, and healthy strong blood vessels play a vital role in staving off Alzheimer’s or any other type of dementia.

It makes sense that what’s bad for the heart — such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol — is also bad for the brain and your Alzheimer’s risk, he says.

Following heart-healthy habits can make a difference in reducing  your risk of Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia: That holds true not just for those who are cognitively “normal” but also for those who have the first Alzheimer's warning signs, memory problems known as mild cognitive impairment and even for those already diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

Here are some strategies to help you avert Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia:

  1. Walk and bike. Burke says the first proactive habit to embrace is 45 minutes of cardiovascular exercise on most days of the week to boost blood circulation and vascular health. Superior midlife fitness levels may reduce later-life dementia, according to research in the “Annals of Internal Medicine.”
  2. Exercise your brain, too. A second important habit is intellectual stimulation: Read, debate, discuss. “The brain constantly makes new connections, and when those connections aren’t active, the brain tends to prune them,” Burke says.
  3. Mingle and debate. Social engagement is another must. Get out, socialize, talk to people — it’s not goofing off; it’s protecting your head and your heart. Engaging socially is much better than spending a solo night at home with the television, Burke says.
  4. Eat healthfully. Following a heart-healthy Mediterranean diet has been linked to less cognitive impairment, according to an influential 2012 study in “Translational Psychiatry.” Incorporating mostly fruits, vegetables, whole grains and olive oil into your diet may reduce your Alzheimer’s risk.
  5. Attend classes. Interestingly, having an advanced education seems to lower the risk of Alzheimer’s or soften its blow, say researchers who tested the memory of 143 older healthy adults and 143 with early-to-moderate Alzheimer’s. Those with 17 years of education (college graduates and higher) did better than those who stopped attending school at high school levels, according to the report, which was published in the “Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology.”
  6. Get happy. Clinical depression earlier in life may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s, according to a report in the “Archives of General Psychiatry.” It may be that depression ups the risk of vascular diseases, thus boosting Alzheimer’s danger.

“People say, ‘I would do anything to prevent Alzheimer’s,’” Burke says, but too many patients and caregivers simply do not follow through. To protect yourself from vascular problems – or blood flow issues to the brain -- try embracing these habits, too:

  • Quit cigarettes if you smoke,
  • Bring your blood pressure under control,
  • Be sure your diabetes is managed, and
  • Control your cholesterol levels.

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