For years, scientists have been trying to understand the cause of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and believed that genetics played a bigger role than we now know. With a direct genetic link in only about five percent of diagnosed cases, it turns out that dementia is not necessarily inevitable or out of our control. In fact, a growing body of research shows that lifestyle factors including diet, exercise, and maintaining a healthy weight may give us more control than previously thought. This link to metabolic health has led some health practitioners to consider Alzheimer’s a third type of diabetes that affects only the brain, AKA, type 3 diabetes.
While this classification remains controversial, there are strong links between Alzheimer’s disease and type 2 diabetes. Diabetes does not cause Alzheimer’s, but it does increase your risk of developing the disease; people with type 2 diabetes are 60 percent more likely to develop dementia than those without the condition. A 2016 study also showed that nearly half of the examined diagnosed cases of Alzheimer’s were associated with high blood glucose levels. In fact, the so-called Alzheimer’s gene, APOE4, seems to interfere with brain cells’ ability to use insulin, leading them to starve and cause cognitive decline. While this sounds scary, there is plenty you can take control of in your health journey to ensure a healthy body and a healthy brain:
1. Live by a Balanced, Healthy Diet Structure—Not a Fad Diet. For those of you who know me and have worked with me know that I am NOT a proponent of diets. They all work while you are “on” them and stop working when you can no longer stick to the stringent rules. But there are some healthy eating structures such as the Mediterranean diet, that helps the heart, blood sugar levels AND may also help your brain. One study of 116 people showed that those who followed this Mediterranean structure had thicker cortical brain regions—the part that shrinks in people with Alzheimer’s disease. The Mediterranean diet focuses on fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy fats from fatty fish and olive oil, leaner proteins, and quality whole grains. A more detail-oriented approach known as MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) combines the Mediterranean philosophy with the blood pressure-reducing DASH diet to specifically target brain health. Unlike the Mediterranean approach, which allows for moderate amounts of dairy, MIND eliminates butter, full-fat cheese, red and processed meats, fast food, sweets, and margarine. It also ranks some veggies and fruits as more beneficial than others while the Mediterranean and DASH approaches encourage eating the rainbow. MIND has shown to be effective in slowing cognitive decline in stroke patients and one study showed that strong adherents had a 53 percent reduction in Alzheimer’s risk after four and half years on the diet than those who followed it more loosely.
2. Find Movement You Love and Stick to It. Regular exercise is like the master key to health. Not only can it help prevent risk factors for dementia like type 2 diabetes, but it’s perhaps the best preventative against neurodegenerative decline because it can reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s by as much as 50 percent! Physical activity helps maintain old brain connections and form new ones and it may also increase the size of the hippocampus (the part of the brain associated with memory formation). Experts recommend 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity exercise that includes both cardio and strength training sessions.
3. Avoid Hypertension. There is a strong link between hypertension and Alzheimer’s disease as vascular damage may lead to cognitive decline. A 2013 study showed that older people with high blood pressure were more likely to have biomarkers of the disease in their spinal fluid. Another study found that the more variance in participants’ blood pressure over an eight-year period, the greater their risk of dementia. If you struggle with hypertension or have a family history, consider monitoring your sodium and caffeine intake, employing stress management tools, and of course, exercising regularly.
4. Cut Back on Sugar. Too much added sugar can negatively impact nearly every part of your body, and your brain is no exception. A study conducted by the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute showed that participants with higher levels of insulin resistance used less blood sugar in areas of the brain most susceptible to Alzheimer’s. What this means is that the parts of the brain responsible for information processing and memory creation and retention were receiving less energy and therefore could not work as well. Reducing your sugar intake will also help prevent you from developing insulin resistance in the future as sudden spikes and drops in blood glucose can lead to problems later on.
5. Get Enough Quality Sleep. Adequate rest allows your body to recharge and repair itself. Research shows that those who don’t sleep well or enough are more likely to develop insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and Alzheimer’s—especially in middle-aged adults. One study showed that for adults in their 50s and 60s, those who got six or less hours of sleep a night were 30 percent more likely to develop dementia than those who got seven hours or more. In particular, the last two hours of sleep seem to be some of the most vital as they contain a lot of REM sleep which scientists believe has an impact on emotional memory and memory consolidation.
While the prospect of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia is a daunting one, knowing that we have more control over our cognitive health should be the push we need to make more healthy choices. If you need help curbing your sugar intake, cleaning up your sleep routine, or learning how to create a healthy diet structure that you can live and thrive by, please contact me.