Given the prevalence and devastating impact of Alzheimer’s disease, the claims are bound to grab attention. After all, who wouldn’t want to “reverse mental decline associated with dementia in just a week,” “reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by half” or “prevent the progression of Alzheimer’s”?
Let’s start with a hard truth: While certain FDA-approved drugs can treat the symptoms, no cures or treatments have been shown to stop, slow or reverse the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. The FDA is clamping down on the makers of dozens of products, often labelled as dietary supplements, that claim otherwise. What those companies are selling, says the administration, is false hope.
Disappointing? Yes. But several avenues of legitimate hope exist; proactive steps we can all take to potentially reduce our risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Age and aging, genetics and lifestyle are the three big risk factor areas for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, says Dr. Daniel L. Murman, director of the Behavioral and Geriatric Neurology Program at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
“The first two, we don’t have real control over, but there is growing evidence that a healthy lifestyle is associated with better cognitive aging and less risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s,” he says. “The challenge is it’s not a simple pill to take. It likely involves multiple components of a healthy lifestyle put together.”
Those components include:
• Actively avoiding a sedentary lifestyle. “One adage is, ‘What’s good for the heart is good for the brain.’ We know that blood flow is vitally important for the brain and other organs,” Dr. Murman says.“One big benefit of physical exercise is heart and cerebrovascular health. (Cerebrovascular health relates to blood vessels and blood flow in the brain.) When you develop cerebrovascular disease, that leads to risk of stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.”
• Exercising your brain, too. “No one has proven there is an exact ‘brain game’ – whether it’s a crossword puzzle, Sudoku or a computer-based game – that’s better than another. As long as you’re actively mentally engaged, that is ‘exercising your brain,’” Dr. Murman says.
• Sailing into a Mediterranean diet. Dr. Murman says a heart-healthy Mediterranean diet (lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, fish and poultry, and healthy fats such as olive oil) has the most science behind it in terms of lowering the risk of cognitive decline with aging and dementia. His caveat: Most of those studies are still at the observational stage and not at randomized control trials.
• Taking aim at high blood pressure and diabetes. “Having uncontrolled blood pressure and uncontrolled diabetes increase your risk of cerebrovascular disease, but it looks like there is a separate interaction between brain health and diabetes.” In particular, Dr. Murman says, insulin resistance, which is associated with Type II diabetes, seems to be detrimental to brain health and linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
• Shutting it down at the end of the day. Since “sleep is a very restorative time for the brain,” Dr. Murman’s anti-Alzheimer’s strategy includes improving sleep and treating any sleep disorders. During the deeper stages of sleep, he says, there is some evidence that the brain undergoes “a sort of cleansing process for removing abnormal and harmful proteins.”
While “these lifestyle suggestions still don’t have absolute proof,” Dr. Murman sees only an upside to pursuing them: “There is enough evidence that each, in general, contributes to improved wellness and, potentially, less development of disease, whether that’s dementia, Alzheimer’s or other diseases.”
Echoing advice from the Alzheimer’s Association, he says the time to start is now. “Starting early has a bigger benefit than starting later in life.”