From The Desk Of Clarence Bass
Ward off Alzheimer’s with Lifestyle
Scientists lead by a team from China analyzed 395 studies and identified ten risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease: diabetes, poor BMI, reduced education, high blood pressure in midlife, low blood pressure, head trauma, high levels of homocysteine, less cognitive activity, stress, and depression.
The details were reported July 20, 2020, in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry.
Many, perhaps all, of the risk factors can be modified with lifestyle changes.
“Although we cannot eliminate risk altogether,” Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter observed in its October 2020 issue, “it is heartening to know that staying mentally (and physically) active and protecting cardiometabolic health can lower our risk for Alzheimer’s disease.”
The most common cause of premature senility, with 3 million US cases diagnosed every year, Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. In most people with the disease—those with the late-onset type—symptoms first appear in their mid-60s.
Age and genetics can’t be changed, but many dementia risk factors can be reduced. Two sources I found especially helpful are Alzheimer’s Research UK and The Conversation. I will cherry pick a few key points from each source and then provide links for those who want to dig deeper.
Alzheimer’s Research UK
The UK researchers tell us that around a third of dementia cases may be due to factors that can be changed.
Family history does not mean you will get it too. Directly inherited dementia is rare. While your risk may be higher than someone with no family history, lifestyle is still a powerful safeguard.
Risk factors for cardiovascular disease (like high blood pressure and stroke) are also risk factors for dementia—what is good for your heart is good for your brain.
While it’s never too late to make positive changes, keeping your heart healthy in your forties and fifties seems to be particularly important for helping lower your risk of dementia.
Stay active, exercise, and don’t smoke.
Research has found that people who are physically active have a lower risk of memory and thinking problems. Staying physically active also reduces the risk of other health conditions like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, which are known risk factors for dementia. Therefore, staying active not only helps maintain a healthy body but can help keep our brain healthy as well.
Mental activity is important.
Research has linked staying mentally active to a lower risk of memory and thinking problems. Other studies have linked spending more time in education with a lower risk.
Healthy eating is good and alcohol can be bad.
Research has found a link between regularly drinking too much alcohol and an increased risk of dementia.
You’ll find more about reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk by visiting
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The Conversation probed each of the 10 Alzheimer’s disease risk factors identified by the Chinese team of researchers.
Mark Dallas, Associate Professor in Cellular Neuroscience, University of Reading, Reading, England, authored the review. He does a superb job of explaining the “what” and “why” of each risk factor. I will highlight a few of the explanations that I found especially meaningful—and subject to modification through lifestyle changes. I urge you to read the rest of what Professor Dallas tells us. He presents each factor in concise language that we can all understand and benefits from. Kudos to him and The Conversation.
Education Level: The longer you spend in education, the lower your risk of developing dementia. Research looking at the brains of people from different educational backgrounds also showed that people who were more educated had heavier brains. A heavier brain may make you more resilient.
Cognitive Activity: Evidence shows that keeping our brains active can also fight against dementia. This latest study shows that we need to continue keeping our brains active, even in older age. Other studies agree that challenging our brains does indeed reduce our chances of developing dementia.
BMI: The study suggests a body mass index (BMI) between 18.5 and 24.9 for those under 65 – a healthy weight, in other words – may lower dementia risk. However, being underweight in middle age and later life can also increase dementia risk.
Stress: Long term stress targets our body’s immune cells, which are important in keeping dementia at bay. Aiming to reduce stress can reduce the chances of developing dementia.
Professor Dallas observes that this study offers a complex picture of how we can combat the onset of Alzheimer’s. There is promise in that many of these risk factors can be managed or modified through lifestyle changes, including diet and exercise.
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I hope that whets your appetite for more of what Professor Dallas has to tell us:
My cognitive state includes the positive—and negative—traits of my family. My father was a very successful medical doctor—strong willed and very much his own man—and my mother was a registered nurse.
They both lived to 80, with a stroke taking my father. He was thinking clearly to the end. His last words were instructions to the nurses caring for him. (I was there.)
Dementia took my mother.
I remember her talking about her father, the owner and operator of a general store, hanging himself when she was a child—and how much it upset her. (That was when I was a young boy; I don’t remember hearing more about it in later years.)
As I have noted, she scoffed at my belief in the power of exercise. Still, she was never over-weight. My father joked that she could eat a wash-tube full of ice milk without raising her blood sugar. She didn’t have diabetes or cardiovascular disease.
I believe emotional problems and lack of purpose were her downfall.
Nevertheless, her loving nature was apparent to everyone who knew her; the staff in the nursing home where she spent her final days were very fond of her. She was always happy to see me--never a doubt that I was her son.
Nevertheless, simple tasks were beyond her at the end. (Dementia was listed as her cause of death.)
One the other hand, my paternal grandmother died in her sleep without spending a day in the hospital. A widow for 50 years, she made it to year or two short of 100--with her wits about her to the very end.
Like my mother, she was always happy to see me.
Taken together, it would seem that I have both good and bad genes.
My guess is that many others are in the same boat—and that lifestyle is the governing factor in our cognitive fitness.
Once again, health span—physical and mental—is largely up to us. Exercise, eat wisely, and stay mentally active. Do that and you are likely to live a long life—thinking clearly to the very end.
November 1, 2020
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