Health, Mind & Body

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How to reduce your risk for Alzheimer's disease

Alzheimer's disease affects millions of people across the globe. In the United States alone, the Alzheimer's Association estimates one in eight older men and women has the disease, which is the sixth-leading cause of death in the country.

Few families have not been affected by Alzheimer's disease, and many relatives of those with the disease fully understand the role family history can play. Research into the disease is ongoing, and it's already yielded valuable information that may help reduce the prevalence of this devastating disease in the years to come.

One byproduct of researchers' efforts is the discovery that it may be possible to prevent or delay the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease through the implementation of a combination of healthy lifestyle choices. The following are a few healthy habits that may help men and women reduce their risk for Alzheimer's.

* Exercise regularly. A study conducted by Scottish researchers and published in the journal Neurology in 2012 touted exercise as the most effective way for adults to protect their brains from Alzheimer's disease. Researchers examined roughly 700 70-year-old participants, all of whom were born in 1936, who were asked to report their levels of physical activity. Each participant then received an MRI at age 73. Those tests revealed that the participants who were more physically active showed less brain shrinkage and fewer white matter lesions, both of which are indicators of Alzheimer's disease. In addition, the Alzheimer's Research & Prevention Foundation reports that physical exercise reduces a person's risk of developing Alzheimer's by 50 percent and can even slow further deterioration in those who have already begun to develop the cognitive problems associated with Alzheimer's. Researchers continue to study the relationship between physical activity and the development of Alzheimer's diseases, but the evidence is mounting that regular exercise, regardless of a person's age, is a great way to reduce risk for Alzheimer's.

* Eat healthy. What you put into your body may also reduce your risk for Alzheimer's disease. The brain operates at its best when it is fueled with a healthy diet that includes fresh fruit and vegetables, healthy fats and lean protein. A heart-healthy diet is also brain-healthy, and researchers have found a potential link between heart disease and Alzheimer's disease. Researcher Larry Sparks of the Sun Health Research Institute in Arizona and formerly of the Kentucky medical examiner's office studied brain tissues with a goal of finding early signs of Alzheimer's disease. He discovered that those who had the telltale plaques of Alzheimer's disease also had heart disease, suggesting heart disease may be a forerunner of brain diseases like Alzheimer's. The Alzheimer's Association feels this link between the two will only grow stronger in the years to come, suggesting that a heart-healthy diet that reduces a person's risk of heart disease may also reduce the risk for Alzheimer's down the road. More information on a heart-healthy diet is available at www.heart.org.

* Stimulate yourself mentally. Mental stimulation can help the brain stay sharp, and men and women who find ways to stay mentally stimulated can reduce their risk of developing Alzheimer's. Embrace activities that require communication and interaction with others, and find time for additional tasks that can stimulate your brain. These may include studying a foreign language, reading, trying your hand at mentally stimulating puzzles such as crosswords or Sudoku, and other activities that emphasize organization. Such activities are essentially workouts for your brain that can help it stay sharp as you age.

* Remain socially active. Staying socially active into older adulthood is important for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that research has indicated the brain functions better when men and women are not isolated from others. Memory and cognition are stronger when people remain socially active and engaged in their society, so retirees should look for ways to revive their social lives as a means to protecting their brains from the onset of Alzheimer's or dementia.

Alzheimer's disease remains an enigma in many ways. But ongoing research continues to show that men and women can take measures to actively prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease and improve their quality of life as a result.