9 habits that may reduce your risk for developing Alzheimer's


Keeping your mind sharp

More than 5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer's disease, a progressive, degenerative disorder that attacks the brain's nerve cells, according to the Alzheimer's Foundation of America. Alzheimer's destroys memory and other mental functions, according to the Mayo Clinic. While some medications and treatments can temporarily improve symptoms, there's no cure and no certain preventive measures. However, "keeping your brain as sharp as possible and your memory and cognitive functions as sharp as possible" could mitigate your risk of contracting Alzheimer's, says Charles J. Fuschillo Jr., president and chief executive officer of the Alzheimer's Foundation of America in New York City. "You have to be proactive about your brain health."

Related: Famous people with the disease

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Notable people with Alzheimer's
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Notable people with Alzheimer's
This file photo dated 04 November, 1991 shows US President Ronald Reagan giving a speech at the dedication of the library bearing his name in Simi Valley, California. He was US president from 1981 to 1989 and retreated from public life after it was revealed he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. (Photo by J. David Ake, AFP/Getty Images)
Glenn Campbell performs during The Goodbye Tour at the Ryman Auditorium on January 3, 2012 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Ed Rode/Getty Images)
Picture dated 18 May 1991 of US actor Charles Bronson during the 44th Cannes film festival, southern France. Bronson died 30 August 2003 in Los Angeles of complications from pneumonia. (Photo by Gerard Julien, AFP/Getty Images)
392653 01: Actor Burgess Meredith performs in the television show 'The Twilight Zone.' (Photo Courtesy of Sci Fi Channel/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - AUGUST 31: Actor James Doohan recieves his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame August 31, 2004 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Mark Mainz/Getty Images)
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Devastating effects

The effects of Alzheimer's are irreversible, according to the National Institute on Aging. Among older adults, it's the most common type of dementia. The disease can cause the loss of cognitive functions such as remembering and reasoning. People with Alzheimer's may even forget important people in their lives, like spouses and children. While there is no cure, there may be ways to lower your risk for the disease. A meta-analysis of 65 studies on the onset of Alzheimer's, published in March in the journal NeuroToxicology, reported several factors that could be linked to a decreased risk of Alzheimer's.

Here are nine strategies experts recommend:

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9 Habits That May Reduce Your Risk for Developing Alzheimer's
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9 Habits That May Reduce Your Risk for Developing Alzheimer's

Memory screening

Ask your primary care doctor for a memory test as part of your annual physical, Fuschillo advises. A memory test typically consists of answering questions and lasts about 10 minutes. Memory screenings can be administered by doctors, psychologists, social workers, nurse practitioners and pharmacists. The person administering the screening will review the results with you and may suggest a follow-up with a physician for more testing.

MIND diet

Research suggests that eating the MIND diet – a combination of the DASH and Mediterranean diets – can promote a healthy brain, says Leigh Tracy, a registered dietitian at the Center for Endocrinology Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “Consuming a diet rich in ‘brain-healthy foods’ may help reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s,” Tracy says. The MIND diet emphasizes all vegetables, particularly green leafy ones, as well as nuts, berries, beans, fish, poultry, whole grains, olive oil and, for nonalcoholics, wine. Limit your intake of butter, cheese, fast foods and fried foods

Omega-3 fats

Besides adhering to the MIND diet, it’s also a good idea to eat lots of Omega-3 fats, which studies suggest can lower your risk of developing Alzheimer’s or slow its progression, says Erin Clifford, a wellness coach in Chicago. These fats can be found in salmon, sardines, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds and walnuts. Some fish oil supplements can also be a good source of Omega-3 fats, but they must be pharmaceutical grade, she says. Also, food items that fight inflammation in the body may be helpful in reducing your risk for Alzheimer’s. These items would include turmeric, available as a capsule or as a spice, and cinnamon.

Cardiovascular health

Developing high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol can lead to cardiovascular disease, which can be a risk factor for Alzheimer’s, says Dara Schwartz, a clinical psychologist at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, a behavioral health facility in San Diego. Living a healthy lifestyle that protects your cardiovascular health may help prevent Alzheimer’s. That means eating a healthy diet and getting enough exercise. Walking at least 30 minutes a day can help mitigate your odds of developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes, she says.

Mental well-being

Studies suggest a correlation between depression and social isolation and a propensity for developing Alzheimer’s, Schwartz says. Maintaining strong social connections is a great strategy for avoiding depression and feelings of isolation, which are often connected. Meet regularly with friends, participate in social groups like a book club or a bicycling or walking group, and pick up the phone and talk to people, she suggests. Eye-gazing, holding hands, touching and talking also stimulate your brain. “The human brain is designed to reward you for human connection,” she says. “Try and connect with someone every day. Say hello to a neighbor. Push yourself to do something social every day.”

Stress management

Stress in middle age could be a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s, research has suggested. A scientific review published in January in the journal Current Opinion in Psychiatry suggests that chronic stress could contribute to the development of dementia and depression. Practicing yoga and meditation (which is typically an integral part of yoga) can be effective ways to manage stress, the Alzheimer’s Foundation says. Visiting friends, volunteering and maintaining a spiritual or religious practice can also be helpful. Don’t be afraid to seek professional support if you need it

Challenge yourself

Keeping your mind sharp by developing new skills may be a good way to reduce your odds of developing Alzheimer’s. “When our brain is challenged and forced to do something new, like learning a new language, that’s our brain working,” Schwartz says. Mentally challenging games like crossword puzzles can be a good way to keep your brain sharp – unless you do them all the time and have mastered them. Then, you might try Sudoku, a puzzle game with numbers. Brush your teeth with your off hand, Fuschillo says. It’s important to stimulate the parts of your brain that involve language, communications and problem-solving skills and spatial problem-solving.

Clinical studies

If you have the opportunity, consider volunteering to take part in a clinical study, Schwartz says. Researchers need volunteers to study how to fight Alzheimer's. There are clinical trials for people who have no signs of Alzheimer's, people with early onset of the disease, and volunteers who have advanced Alzheimer's. Taking part in a clinical study may not help you directly or immediately, but it can contribute to the body of research that can help future generations

Stop smoking and exercise

Studies suggest that preventing hypertension and diabetes may reduce the chances of developing Alzheimer's, says Ann Norwich, assistant professor of nursing and director of the Adult Gerontology Nurse Practitioner Program at York College of Pennsylvania. Getting enough exercise and not smoking are among the ways to avoid hypertension and diabetes. "If you really want to prevent Alzheimer's, improve your diet, eat lots of berries, get off the couch, put down your cigarettes and make a concerted effort to lose even 10 percent of your extra weight," she says.

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