Developing Alzheimer’s disease isn’t simply bad luck or unavoidable genetics.
There are many aspects of your overall health, lifestyle, and diet that you can improve to reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other degenerative brain diseases. Such changes could prevent or delay dementia in up to 40% of people.
It’s never too early to prioritize your brain function, and older adults can also make changes to reduce their risk or slow the progression of cognitive decline.
What causes Alzheimer’s disease?
“The path to Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders is a complex one that includes modifiable and non-modifiable vulnerability and resilience factors,” says James E. Galvin, M.D., M.P.H., a neurologist with the University of Miami Health System who specializes in memory and cognitive disorders.
“Exciting research from the Paris Brain Institute, our lab (the UM Miller School of Medicine’s Comprehensive Center for Brain Health), and other investigators is opening up new areas of research to begin to develop prevention programs aimed at reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by identifying modifiable risk factors,” he says.
At least 12 medical conditions and health factors are tied to Alzheimer’s.
Neurologists are working to determine which of these can trigger the disease (up to 10 years before diagnosis), which ones are warning signs of developing Alzheimer’s, and which factors are symptoms of related medical conditions.
Research suggests that these conditions may be associated with mechanisms that promote the accumulation of brain pathology and neuronal injury that ultimately results in Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. Galvin says.
- Major depression
- Heart disease
- Hearing loss
- Sleep disorders (particularly sleep apnea)
- Head injury
Some non-specific conditions are also associated with brain diseases. These include constipation, falls, fatigue, frailty, abnormal weight loss, stress, and anxiety.
“While these conditions are less likely to cause disease, they may serve as markers of brain changes years before the development of the cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease,” he says.
Constipation, for example, can appear seven years before Alzheimer’s diagnosis and more than a decade before a Parkinson’s diagnosis.
“There are also some novel associations, such as cervical spondylosis arthritis, that are linked to both advancing age and Alzheimer’s. Since age is also the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, these two conditions may share a common risk without being directly related to each other.”
Other risk factors for brain disease include:
- Older age
- Female sex
- Socioeconomic status
- Lower education level
Which ethnic and racial groups are more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s?
“Compared with non-Hispanic white individuals, African Americans are at two-fold increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Hispanics are at a 1.5-fold increased risk, and Native Americans at a two to three-fold increased risk,” says Dr. Galvin.
“These risk levels may be related to inherent racial and ethnic differences; access to healthcare, which is a component of geographic location and socioeconomic status; discrimination; health inequities; and the higher burden of vascular risk factors (obesity, diabetes, hypertension) in racial/ethnic minorities.”
What does socioeconomic status have to do with a brain disease?
Your socioeconomic status can impact your brain health in many ways.
“Lower socioeconomic groups tend to live in poor housing conditions, be uninsured or underinsured, have less access to healthcare (particularly specialists), have poorer nutrition, lower educational attainment and access to lower quality education institutions, and have higher vascular risk factors associated with environmental and lifestyle,” Dr. Galvin says. All of these factors can raise your risk for Alzheimer’s.
“Socioeconomic status may contribute to disparities in access to healthcare services, while race and ethnicity may contribute to disparities in the quality and extent of services received. This highlights the need to critically address potential interactions between race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, which may better explain disparities in Alzheimer’s disease health outcomes.”
What can you do to reduce your risk for Alzheimer’s?
“You can actively control or influence your brain health by following some common sense strategies,” Dr. Galvin says.
Reduce your risk factors.
Don’t smoke, limit alcohol, get enough quality sleep, lower your stress, avoid air pollution, and protect your head from injury.
Maintain a healthy weight.
Stay active, eat a heart- and a brain-healthy diet rich in plants and nutrient-dense foods, and avoid processed foods and added sugars.
Manage your underlying medical conditions.
Follow your doctor’s medication and lifestyle recommendations to manage diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, high cholesterol, sleep apnea, and hearing loss.
Prioritize your mental health.
Seek professional treatment for depression and anxiety.
Engage your brain.
Stay socially active, learn a language, practice an instrument, meditate, build and create things, read for pleasure, try novel experiences, and challenge yourself to learn something new every few months.
Being in nature is linked to emotional wellbeing, lower stress, and sensory stimulation. Being physically active outdoors enhances these benefits.
Dana Kantrowitz is a contributing writer for UMiami Health News.
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