Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative condition and type of dementia that causes persistent memory loss, disorientation, loss of cognitive abilities, and other forms of cognitive decline. Patients afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease often lose touch with their memories, their awareness, and even their personalities over the course of many years.
What’s especially troubling is that despite 5.5 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease, we still don’t know much about the disease, and treatment options for those suffering from it are extremely limited. All we have is the knowledge of a few habits and lifestyle choices that can, over time, reduce your risk of developing the disease in the first place.
Why Our Knowledge Is Limited
Though dementia has been recognized for centuries, it wasn’t until the 1980s that researchers from Harvard University Medical School found out just how prevalent Alzheimer’s disease was, and how important it was to study the disease. Over the past 30 years, we’ve learned much about the origins of the disease, but are still short of a cure and have many unanswered questions.
These are some of the biggest reasons why we’re still in the dark:
- Alzheimer’s disease sets in slowly. The disease develops very slowly, over the course of decades, and early stages of the disease have signs similar to normal aging, such as memory loss and a slowdown of various cognitive abilities. This makes it difficult to notice and diagnose in the early stages, and also makes it difficult to study with a large population size. Also, if detected early, it takes 20 or 30 years to determine whether those early-stage treatments were effective in mitigating or controlling the disease.
- Root causes vary. Alzheimer’s is a specific type of dementia that manifests as an accumulation of amyloid plaque in the brain. However, the exact origins of this plaque aren’t concretely defined; it develops naturally, and its development could be accelerated or influenced by a number of factors, including genetic influences and lifestyle habits.
- Treatment is nearly impossible. If caught in the early stages, there are many treatments and strategies that can prevent further progression of symptoms. However, once the damage is done to the brain, it’s incredibly hard—if not impossible—to reverse. Just like you can’t retrieve data from a hard drive that’s been properly erased, once Alzheimer’s is in its mid- to late-stages, treatment becomes exceedingly difficult.
Fortunately, correlational studies suggest there are some lifestyle changes you can make to improve your health and prevent the buildup of amyloid plaque in the brain:
- Eat healthy foods. Eating an overall “healthy” diet may decrease your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Try to eat lots of fruits and vegetables, as well as lean meats and proteins. Avoid overindulgence of sweets, carbohydrates, red meats, and alcohol.
- Eat lots of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fats, which are a specific type of fat often found in fatty fish and flaxseed, may decrease your risk for Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline. If you aren’t getting enough of these fats in your regular diet, you can take omega-3 supplements instead.
- Exercise regularly. Regular physical exercise is important to keep your body and mind in sound condition. Studies suggest that exercising for a total of 150 minutes a week with a combination of cardiovascular and strength training is enough to reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s by 50 percent.
- Get enough sleep. Researchers believe that sleep plays an important role in clearing out the natural buildup of amyloid plaque in the brain, though this mechanism isn’t completely understood. Getting enough sleep every night could help your brain stay healthy and free from these plaques, reducing your risk of developing the disease.
- Socialize frequently. Frequent socialization is also linked to higher mental health. Going out and talking with friends and family members may reduce your risk of cognitive decline (and may reduce your risk of depression and other mental illnesses, as well).
- Challenge yourself mentally. Though its benefits aren’t as empirically proven as the other items on this list, you may be able to prevent cognitive decline by doing mental exercises on a regular basis. Try crossword puzzles, Sudoku number puzzles, reading new books, and playing games.
There’s no surefire strategy to prevent Alzheimer’s disease in all cases, and once developed, all you can do is provide care and assistance in a patient’s final years. But if you’re still relatively young and healthy, adopting these habits can increase your chances of avoiding Alzheimer’s, or may at least delay your acquisition of the disease by several years.
Most of these habits have many other perks, including the prevention of other diseases, so they’re worth pursuing no matter who you are or what your health goals are.