While there’s no certain way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease (AD), incorporating more healthy lifestyle behaviors in your day-to-day routine has now been shown to reduce your risk.
A study that included data from nearly 3,000 participants found those who followed four or five specified healthy behaviors lowered their risk of Alzheimer’s by 60%. The behaviors include physical activity, not smoking, light-to-moderate alcohol consumption, a high-quality diet and engagement in cognitive activities.
Researchers reviewed data and selected participants from existing study populations: 1,845 participants from the Chicago Health and Aging Project and 920 from the Memory and Aging Project. Study subjects were selected based on available data regarding their diet, genetics, lifestyle factors and clinical assessments for AD.
Thomas Holland, MD, a physician-scientist at Rush University Medical Center, told Seasons researchers scored each participant based on five healthy lifestyle factors—which made the study unique because it used a composite score for living a healthy life.
Healthy lifestyle scores were based on:
- Physical activity (at least 150 minutes or more per week of moderate to vigorous-intensity physical activity)
- Not smoking
- Light-to-moderate alcohol consumption
- A high-quality diet: Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet
- Engagement in late-life cognitive activities (e.g., learning a new language or completing crossword puzzles)
“Each of the lifestyle factors was given equal weighting, and thus when looking at lifestyle modifications or interventions, an individual could reflect on how they want to implement these particular factors—and know that making positive changes or maintaining a healthy level in two or more of these categories will reduce their risk of Alzheimer’s dementia,” Holland said.
Study subjects were given an overall score ranging from zero to five. Researchers found compared to participants with zero to one healthy lifestyle factors, the risk of Alzheimer’s dementia was 37% lower in those with two to three healthy lifestyle factors and 60% lower in those with four to five healthy lifestyle factors.
“People who engaged in more healthy behaviors had a lower risk than people with fewer because all of these things matter, and when it comes to brain-healthy behaviors, more is more!” said Joshua Grill, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the University of California, Irvine. “So, we should all try to adopt as many brain-healthy behaviors as we can.”
Is one healthy lifestyle factor more effective in reducing AD risk?
According to Holland, while no conclusive evidence shows one lifestyle factor as more effective than another, cognitive activities have been implicated as being one of the most important.
“Cognitive activities or training – like learning a new language, trying to do a crossword puzzle, learning about new artists, or just learning something new – really helps build resilience,” he said. “If you’re pushing your brain to do something new, you’re going to build resilience against it (if a disease process were to occur). You’re going to have a type of cognitive reserve where you’re preventing the onset of a disease process or you’re preventing it from being as severe as it would be.”
Grill adds while cognitive activities are important, other lifestyle factors in the study (physical exercise, healthy diet and avoiding smoking) still play huge roles in lowering the risk of disease.
“Risk is also lower among people who limit high-fat and high-sugar foods, get a good night’s sleep (seven to eight hours) every night, [stay] socially active, and [manage] other risk factors, like blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar.”
How these healthy lifestyle factors can affect seniors
Grill says even once a person is in the early stages of AD, there’s evidence these lifestyle interventions may help them improve memory and other cognitive tasks. He adds later in the disease, getting exercise may be important to help establish and keep routines, including sleep routines, which could impact difficult behavioral symptoms.
However, Holland said despite the findings of the study, more research will be needed to determine if these lifestyle factors are effective in slowing the progression of AD in older adults.
“If we’re controlling neuroinflammation, we’re having our lipid and blood glucose at appropriate levels, ensuring we’re reducing cardiovascular risk, and reducing activities that could be harmful such as alcohol consumption or smoking, then we should be able to decrease the likelihood of Alzheimer’s dementia, as well as hopefully, either slow or prevent progression,” he said.
Other steps to reduce the risk of AD
Adults can also reduce the risk of AD in other ways, including:
- Getting adequate high-quality sleep
- Reducing stress
- Ensuring cholesterol, blood glucose and blood pressure levels are within normal ranges
- Socializing with others
- Building strong, meaningful relationships
“The anticipated incidence of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia is set to increase by threefold by 2050,” Holland said. “It is of dire importance to do everything we can right now to either prevent or slow the disease progression. We need to have a well-rounded lifestyle because this disease is quite diverse, and we need as many tools in our toolbox to fight this disease.”