VirginiaLynne was a caregiver for in-laws with Alzheimer's, and she shares her extensive research in dementia and elder care to help others.
Is It Possible?
Yes. Researchers now believe that dementia is not a just a disease of old people but is something that builds up gradually throughout our lives. There is no magic cure, but the good news is that many researchers believe that there are many steps we can take, when we are younger, to delay the onset of memory loss.
Although researchers are still investigating many foods and medicines to see how well they prevent or delay symptoms, several very simple health and lifestyle practices are already shown to have a great impact on our brain health. Better yet, these same lifestyle, food, and health practices are good for our overall health.
After caring for my two in-laws through their journey with Alzheimer's, I started doing intensive research on how to prevent this disease in myself and my husband. Below are the 13 steps I found that were best supported by a variety of research methods.
If you are concerned about your brain health, as we are, you might want to consider which of these steps you can incorporate into your life.
You may have heard the myth that brain cells can't change. Dr. Fred Gage and others at the Salk Institute exploded that idea over a decade ago when they discovered that new brain cells can grow in adults. Research shows that 60-year-old people who are trained to use the Internet to learn something new show greater activity and development on the part of their brain which stores short-term memory and helps them make decisions.
You can train your brain! How? Learn something new. Anything which forces you to use your brain can be productive in stimulating your brain neurons. Try learning a foreign language. My husband and I are learning Chinese in our 50s. Try reading the collected works of an author you like. Or you can try doing brain teasers, doing brain stimulating computer games or mental math problems. Maybe you want to take a class about something you've always wanted to know, or even try your hand at researching and writing for a website like HubPages.
Walking the dog, doing balancing exercises and swimming are all excellent ways to keep yourself fit, keep a healthy weight, and make your body more resistant to memory loss. In a Harvard research study of more than 18,000 older women, they found that women that walked briskly for just 30 minutes three times a week, or just 15 minutes a day had significantly lower risk of dementia. Moreover, other studies show that just about any physical activity lowers risk: housework, tennis, balance exercises, water aerobics, racquetball, dancing, swimming, and weightlifting can all help the memory regions of your brain grow bigger.
Why? Exercise gets your heart pumping faster and that helps it to get more oxygen to your brain. The more you exercise, the better your heart gets at keeping your brain supplied with everything it needs to be efficient. Moreover, exercise gives us a more positive mental attitude which helps us in many ways. Many studies show that exercise also releases chemicals that help us fight depression and that exercise is just as good as many medications for helping people feel better because it releases endorphins.
How to get started? Set small goals to start. You might want to get a pedometer to help you measure how much you walk each day. Here are some easy ways to exercise just a little more:
- Park a little further away and walk to the store or job.
- Take the stairs rather than the elevator.
- Do housework. If your spouse or a maid does most of the work, consider doing some of this yourself. Most of us can run a vacuum, dust the furniture or mow the lawn.
- Do a Spring Cleaning: Need to get that attic cleaned out? Wish the windows were sparkling? Give yourself a workout and get some of your chores done at the same time.
- Walk the dog. In one University of Missouri study, people who had a dog and walked them adhered to a regular walking program much better than people who didn't and also lost an average of 14 pounds in less than a year!
- Join a Gym: joining an exercise club can give you a chance to learn how to exercise by taking classes and can also motivate you by giving you people to exercise with each week.
- Shop at an Outlet: Going shopping can be a great way to enjoy getting some exercise, and it can be a great way to have fun with friends and family too. So, go shop til you drop!
Looking at the brains of deceased people has shown researchers something very interesting. Some brains of people who showed no signs of the disease while living are filled with the tangles and plaques typical of brains of people who had Alzheimer's. What is the difference? The people who seemed mentally normal had many social contacts and a rich life of friends.
Researchers aren't sure why this protects us from developing signs of the disease but they suspect is that through social connections people learn how to be more efficient and use the resources it still has left. So surround yourself with family and cultivate groups of friends. You will not only prevent brain deterioration, you will have a much richer life.
A study by Dr. Margie Lachman at Brandeis University of 3,000 people of various ages confirmed earlier studies which showed that the more education you get, the lower your chances of developing signs of dementia. It makes sense that people who get more formal education have done more to develop and strengthen their brains. The more brain power you have, the more flexibility your brain has to deal with the stress of aging.
Neuroscientists at Columbia University call the brain resources a person develops in college studies "cognitive reserves." They believe that a person who has more extra connections in their brain due to a lifetime of reading, going to classes, stimulating discussions and constant learning, also has more resilience against the damage of Alzheimer's disease. Probably one reason that people who go to college have more reserves is that in college they develop the ability to continue to be lifelong learners.
The good news is that even a person who did not get a chance to have a formal education can create these cognitive reserves through their own reading and involvement in educational activities. Moreover, a person can continue to do this throughout their life whether they had a college education or not.
Alzheimer's Prevention Quiz
People with interesting jobs which require them to learn new things all the time have a lower risk. Even more striking is the fact in a study of over 900 people from researchers at Rush University Medical Center, people who believed that they have a purpose and sense of direction in their lives were twice as likely to be free of dementia.
Interesting and purposeful activities and jobs can keep our brains stimulated. They also can help us to remain socially connected and learning. If you do not have an interesting job, then seek out a hobby or volunteer opportunity which can put a greater purpose in your week. Whether you enjoy gardening, scrapbooking, or model airplane flying, your activity can be something you can learn more about and share with other people.
Your brain is affected by too much fat in your system. In fact, a study by Paul Thompson at UCLA found that people who were obese had 8% less brain tissue and looked 16 years older than people of normal weight. Especially if you are middle-aged, it is important to tackle being overweight or obese and getting your weight into a healthy range. Remember that controlling your weight through better exercise and diet also helps your body in other ways that will improve your brain functioning too.
However, sudden unintentional weight loss in your 60s or 70s is not a good sign. Brain changes can sometimes we signaled by losing weight at that stage in life. If you have lost weight without trying to do so, you should see a doctor to find the cause.
Should you try to lose weight? If you are middle age or younger, using exercise and diet to get your weight in a healthy range is one of the best things you can do for your health. Elderly people who intentionally lost about 10 pounds in a Wake Forest University study had a 50% lower death risk in the next eight years. So getting a healthier weight has great benefits, but elderly people should be careful to do weight loss with the support of a doctor.
We all know that high blood pressure and high cholesterol leads to problems with a heart attack and strokes. Those same cardiovascular systems affect brain health. In fact, in addition to causing Alzheimer's, cardiovascular health is related to a specific kind of memory loss caused by injury to the brain's blood vessels which is called Vascular dementia. Moreover, strokes and high blood pressure are also linked strongly to developing memory problems in many studies.
Luckily, keeping track of blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugars is a regular part of most health exams as we age. Pay attention to what your numbers are and follow the advice of your physician in diet, exercise and medications to keep these conditions under control.
Lots of research is being done on different foods to see if they help promote mental health. While some "superfoods" may have especially good properties for the brain, the basics of a good diet will serve most people well. What is that?
- Eat vegetables and fruits in a rainbow of colors every day.
- Eat whole grains.
- Don't eat too much meat or fat.
- Fish with Omega oils is good for you.
- Berries, egg yolks, nuts, green tea and coffee all have some benefits.
- Cut back on processed foods, saturated and trans fats and red meat.
Good Brain Foods
|Food||What brain nutrients it contains||Why this helps prevent Alzheimer's|
Fish like salmon, halibus, tuna and other wild sea fish
omega-3 fat and healthy protein
omega-3 fats are anti-inflamatory, protect your heart and brain, and help you feel full so you eat less
Whole grains, oatmeal, and brown rice
fiber and minerals
slower digestion of whole grains means body's blood sugar is more level which helps keep blood presure and blood sugar lower
Caffeine helps build blood brain barriers which shields brain from toxins. Caffenine also increases alertness, mood and memory. It also reduces risk of Type 2 diabetes.
Antioxidant Spices: cinnamon, oregano, tumeric, parsley, basil, cumin, curry, ginger and pepper
Antioxidants are anti-inflamatory and protect the brain
black rasberries, elderberries, raisins, blueberries, cranberries, prunes, plums, blackberries, strawberries, dates, cherries, raw figs, apples with peel, pears with peal, oranges, and red grapes
Deeper colors indicate more antioxidants. These antioxidants slow cognitive decline by helping take out free-radical chemicals which disrupt brain function
flavanol and antioxidants
flavanol increases blood flow to the brain which can stimulate nerve cells to regenerate
Egg yolks, wheat germ, peanuts, almonds, spinach
choline helps the nerve cells synthesize memory
Some researchers believe Alzheimer's may be caused by infections which live in the brain for a long while. So try to avoid infections, and treat infections you do get.
How? Get the vaccinations that are available to you. Keep hand sanitizer near you and use it. Stay away from people who are sick when possible. When you do get an illness that requires antibiotics, be sure to take the full dose and return to your doctor if the infection doesn't seem to go away.
Making sure you keep your body healthy is the first step in keeping your brain healthy. Your doctor can monitor all aspects of your health and treat anything only if you see them regularly. Moreover, having the doctor tell us we need to eat better and exercise more (or knowing we are going to have to face those doctor's scales) can be a positive incentive to do the right thing by your body.
Before people get dementia, they often have a stage of mild, but measurable memory problems called mild cognitive disorder. Catching this early can help your doctor take preventative measures to help prevent or delay further memory loss.
In a study by the University of Michigan, they found excellent vision in older people translated into a 63 percent drop in their chances of getting dementia. Yet even one visit and treatment for poor vision drops your odds of getting this disease by almost the same percentage. By contrast, untreated poor vision can make your odds of memory problems go up by 950%! Why is this? Researchers aren't sure, but it makes sense that poor vision inhibits learning new things and being socially active. So see your eye doctor! Make sure your vision is the best it can be.
Bad teeth and gums are not just making it harder to chew. The germs from tooth and gum infections can also affect your brain. University of Southern California research suggests that having bad dental hygiene in early life gives people a 4x greater possibility of developing the symptoms of dementia.
According to Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, elderly people with severe gum disease have 2-3 times greater chance of having memory problems. So, be sure that from an early age everyone in your family has regular dental cleanings. Ask your dentist what is the best way to care for your teeth daily and be sure to follow that routine. Get any dental work needed to be done as quickly as you can.
Sometimes depression is a symptom, but researchers in France at UCLA have found that people who have depression and mild cognitive disorder were much more likely to develop Alzheimer's than people who did not suffer from depression and had mild memory problems.
The answer? If you are depressed, get treatment. Since depression often leads to less social contact, weight problems and lack of interest in activities, not treating depression can be a double whammy in causing your risk to increase. Medication is not the only, or even the best answer to some problems with depression. Making sure you get regular check-ups to rule out other medical causes of depression and getting involved in exercise and social activities are often the best long-term cure.
Chances are that many people reading this are caregivers worried about your loved ones. I want you to know that you have my full empathy for that difficult task. Moreover, I would encourage you by stating that research seems to indicate that many of the above steps are also helpful to keep brain functioning as high as possible. So you may want to look at the steps for yourself, but also see which of these might help your friend or relative. You might also like to check out my other articles on this topic. Finally, blessings and peace to you on your journey.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on May 27, 2018:
Hi Betty, I'm sorry to hear you have had to deal with Alzheimer's in your family. I don't think there is a way to completely prevent Alzheimer's, but after doing a lot of research, I'm convinced that if you do these 13 steps you will do the most you can to keep your mental state as healthy as possible. If I had to pick one thing to do, I'd suggest that you seek to spend a lot of time with other people, being helpful to them and enjoying their company. The most interesting fact I learned was about some nuns who had allowed scientists to study their brains after they passed away. The scientists found that many of the nuns, had brains that looked like they had Alzheimer's but they had never had symptoms of the disease. The scientists speculated that they close community they lived in had kept them mentally active. That is how I want to live my life too!
Betty Cromer on May 26, 2018:
I have Alzheimer’s in my family - my mother. And my spouse is in a home with it ,I know several people that has it in their fanilies* what can be done at an early stage to try to control this..?i would like to learn what I can do to possibly prolong this- Any advise you can send me I would appreciate it -
Debby Griffin on November 01, 2017:
Is it true that DARK CHOCOLATE is a no no ? because it increases your cholesterol? Dark chocolate is full of antioxidants so why does mu Doctor say not to eat it?
Haley Deville on August 24, 2016:
Great advice, I find it especially interesting how tooth and gum health affect the brain.
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on December 18, 2014:
My husband and I also do a lot of different activities to keep our mental processes going strong. I also think that keeping good social connections makes a big difference. That is a good excuse to go and chat with a friend!
VJG from Texas on December 17, 2014:
I've been an avid reader all my life. I take a book with me to lunch, car repair appointments and shopping. At my age, I've realized that reading is good for keeping sharp. I tend to alternate reading fiction with non-fiction. I also started martial arts - it's amazing the number of steps involved in just one form. So, mental plus physical exercise, I've noticed keeps me sharp.
Silver Q on September 10, 2013:
Very useful hub! It's relieving to know that at least some things can be done to prevent this monster of a disease! Thanks for the useful info!
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on February 06, 2013:
Thanks LA Elsen--I was dealing with my in-laws with Alzheimer's when I also had 3 preschoolers and 2 elementary kids to take care of. I definitely was not taking care of myself at that time! Now I've lost the stress weight I gained over those 5 years and I'm really working to keep myself fit and my brain healthy. Writing this series of hubs on Alzheimers was a challenge because so much of the information was scattered around, but I think nothing I've written has so impacted my own life and behavior. I hope to make preventing Alzheimers easier for other people to know about!
LA Elsen from Chicago, IL on February 06, 2013:
Voted up. Very interesting and useful to me. People need this information scotchtaped to their fridge.
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on October 02, 2012:
Thanks for your comments toknowinfo. I've really tried to incorporate many of these practices into my life since writing this hub. Since they all lead to better health overall, this is just a great motivation to take care of ourselves!
toknowinfo on October 01, 2012:
Wonderful hub! You really covered so many topics that are good for preventing Alzheimers and our overall good health. I also think that artificial products like aspartame and MSG harm our brain cells and may play a part in this awful disease. Thanks for putting this info together, you did a great job! Rated up and shared.
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on September 21, 2012:
Thanks so much for following nancynurse. I am enjoying your articles too.
Virginia Kearney (author) from United States on September 21, 2012:
Ester, thanks for stopping by. I have been very encouraged to find this information myself. The key seems to be that you just need to delay the onset of symptoms in order to have a much fuller life.
Nancy McClintock from Southeast USA on September 21, 2012:
Very Helpful Article. Thank you for sharing. I am doing a lot of the things you mentioned but have some new ones to add. I will enjoy following you too.!!!
Esther Strong from UK on September 21, 2012:
This looks like very prudent advice. It just never occurred to me that prevention was possible so this information is invaluable.