problems come in all shapes and sizes. Some people tend to forget where they
put their cell phone, or cannot easily recall names. Or they can’t recall
taking their medication or remember the birthday or anniversary of a loved one.
Whether they admit to themselves that their forgetfulness seems to happen with
greater frequency or they worry about losing their memory as they age, they are
right to be concerned. Because our aging population is on the rise, Alzheimer’s
an irreversible, progressive form of dementia
that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills as people age and is ultimately
risen from about 4 million in the late 1990s to 5.4 million today.
disease is currently ranked as the sixth leading cause of death in the US, but
estimates by the National Institute on Aging indicate that it may rank third,
just behind heart disease and cancer, as a cause of death for older people.2 But here is some good
news: Whether you want to reverse cognitive deficits now or avoid them later,
more and more studies are suggesting that there is much you can do to keep your
pharmaceutical approach to preventing AD has proved elusive, practical
lifestyle choices to reduce AD are based on good science and good sense. The
secret may lie in epigenetics, the
effect one’s lifestyle has on one’s genes, and thus on the risk for disease. Of
course, the wisdom that lifestyle has an impact on health is not new; we have
been reciting adages such as “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” for ages.
Research in a variety of areas has confirmed that sensible everyday choices can
significantly reduce the risk of AD. According to the National Institutes of
Health, $991 million was dedicated to AD research in 2016, but how much of that
went towards lifestyle-modification and prevention is unclear.3
uncertainty notwithstanding, the positive effects of a healthier lifestyle on
cognition were recently documented for the first time in a longitudinal study.
The two-year, 1,200 participant Finnish
Interventional Geriatric Study for the Prevention of Cognitive Disability
(FINGER) showed that a healthy diet, exercise, socialization, and mental
stimulation can dramatically reduce the development of AD in people at risk for
cognitive decline.4 The French MAPT
Study: A Multidomain Approach for Preventing Alzheimer’s Disease also
suggested that lifestyle modification has an effect in reducing risk factors.5 This multi-domain approach is
consistent with the four-pillar strategy recommended by a number of reputable
sources, including the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation (ARPF),
the Dana Alliance, the American Association of Retired Persons, and the
aforementioned studies add substantially to mounting scientific evidence that suggests
lifestyle and psychological well-being play a critically important role in
Alzheimer’s prevention. We have taken them into account, along with our own
findings, in fine-tuning our longstanding recommendations for staving off and
even helping to reverse AD to the following four strategies. The secret to AD
prevention is tied to maintaining connections: between your brain cells, other
people, and your well-being.
Pillar 1: Diet and Supplements
one of the most important targets for lifestyle modification to prevent AD.
Many people still blindly follow the Standard American Diet, or SAD. According
to the US Government, about 75 percent of all Americans do not consume an
adequate amount of vegetables and fruits, while most exceed the recommended
amount of sugars, saturated fats, sodium, and calories. Studies show that
rejecting SAD may be critical in the fight against AD.6
The science reveals that those who eschew processed foods and
choose whole, real-food options have the least decline in mental faculty.
Research published in the Alzheimer’s Association’s journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia, for example,
confirms that making the switch from a fat- and meat-heavy way of eating to a
primarily plant-based diet—no matter how old a person is when doing so— can
slow and possibly reverse memory loss.The
components of a healthy diet may enhance cognitive performance by one or more
of several actions: affecting synaptic
plasticity, synaptic membrane fluidity, glucose utilization, mitochondrial
function, or reducing oxidative stress.7
Many studies highlight the Mediterranean diet that is rich in
vegetables, fruit, nuts, olive oil, and fish or seafood. Researchers at UCLA
discovered that study participants who followed
this eating plan, which is modeled on the traditional diet of certain
Mediterranean peoples, had lower levels of AD’s hallmark amyloid-beta plaques
in the spaces between their brain nerve cells, along with fewer telltale
tangles of tau protein—meaning those important cell connections were firing
properly.8 And at the Mayo Clinic, through MRI scans, researchers found that
participants who followed the Mediterranean diet for a year had greater
thickness in parts of their brain’s cortex that play a role in memory. Those on
the SAD diet, on the other hand, lost cortex. These findings have implications for
maintaining cognitive function: positive
associations of the Mediterranean Diet scores were observed with average
cortical thickness in parietal and frontal lobes, and in regions of the brain
that mediate or support elements such as memory, executive function, and
versions of the Mediterranean diet, as well as the MIND (
Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay
(Dietary Approaches to Stop
diets, have also shown promising
results. Research from Rush University,
where the MIND diet was
developed by nutritional
epidemiologist Martha Clare Morris,
that the MIND diet could turn back your mental aging clock the equivalent of up
to 7.5 years. Although this is now widely accepted by researchers, further
confirmative studies are ongoing.10
The ARPF nutrition plan has much in common with both the
Mediterranean and MIND diets. Some of
the organization’s main tenets are:
vegetarian diet—full of fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, legumes and
soy—improves focus and begets higher productivity. Wild-caught salmon is the
only animal protein the Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation’s diet
recommends for its brain-friendly omega-3 fats, advising eating it only two to
three times a week.
Fresh juices are alive with the vitamins, minerals, trace
elements, and phytonutrients needed to strengthen the brain.
: Take a high-potency multivitamin and multi-mineral supplement
that includes folic acid. Memory specific supplements of omega-3 oils,
phosphatidyl-serine, coenzyme Q10, alpha lipoic acid, huperzine-A, and
resveratrol are also recommended.
As previously noted, we suspect that certain genes can influence
risk of developing AD. But well-chosen foods and their nutrients may move gene
expression toward a sharp brain. “Genetics are not our destiny,” says Victor S.
Sierpina, M.D., professor of family and integrative medicine at the University
of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. “How we eat can have a major impact in
reducing our risk of developing this feared condition.” By moving away from the
SAD diet to a more Mediterranean-type diet, it is possible to eat for optimal
Pillar 2: Physical and Mental Exercise
The evidence is convincing: Both
physical and mental exercise are absolutely essential in preventing AD.
Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, augments crucial brain compounds
such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and, perhaps most
significantly, causes neurogenesis, or the growth of new brain cells. In a
study at Columbia University, researchers showed that older men who exercised
on a treadmill four times a week for 30 minutes grew new cells in their dentate
gyrus, an important area of the brain related to memory and cognition such as
executive function.11 And
guess what? One can experience these brain-boosting effects of exercise
regardless of one’s age or existing level of fitness or cognitive decline.
wisdom recommends 150 minutes a week of cardio (aka aerobic) exercise, plus
several sessions of strength training. But the benefits of even mild exercise
begin to accrue right away. Just getting out and taking a 20 to 30- minute
brisk walk three times a week will improve brain and memory function. Like
diet, exercise also creates a healthy epigenetic response. Those who are
already in good physical condition should add more variety and intensity to
their workouts. Get a trainer, join a gym, play tennis, swim, or take a boot
camp, Zumba, or cycling class. Find enjoyable activities and make them part of your
keeping one’s mind active is an important aspect of AD prevention. There are a
variety of ways to do this. One of them, reading, is one of the best ways to
stay sharp—not only does learning take place, but the mind is forced to think
and engage outside of everyday tasks.
Other simple strategies—or what are sometimes
called brain-aerobic activities—include playing and listening to music,
creating and viewing art, or completing crossword puzzles.
All stimulate and challenge the brain, giving it a nice “workout.”
Remember, it’s not just about physical fitness, it’s about mental conditioning
Chronic stress is a major risk factor for AD.12 It may be useful to experience stress if one is
running for his or her life, but not when just trying to live one’s life.
Stress has a detrimental effect on genes, causing them to express themselves in
unhealthy ways, such as by producing inflammation, a trademark of AD. The
frenzied pace of life that people experience in today’s world is only
accelerating, so it is helpful to find a regular activity to soothe the harmful
force of stress on the brain.
Published research over the past 13 years reveals that a simple, 12-minute
yoga/meditation technique called Kirtan Kriya (KK) has significant brain
boosting benefits. KK has been examined at leading medical schools, with the
impressive, perhaps surprising, results published in more than one medical
journal, including the Journal of
actual age of KK is unknown. It was passed down from master to student for
generations in the East until Yogi Bhajan (1929-2004) brought it to the West in
about 1970. Kirtan means “singing”
and Kriya means “an action with
specific effects.” KK involves singing the sounds Saa Taa Naa Maa (a mantra) while repeating sequential movements
(mudras) with the fingertips.
yogis did not have imaging or blood tests to unravel the biochemical changes
created by KK and other yoga exercises, but modern science has shown that
practicing KK reduces stress levels and increases blood flow to parts of the
brain that are central to memory and brain function.14
For example, KK activates the
anterior cingulate gyrus (ACG), an important brain region for stress balance
and emotional and cognitive control.
ACG is essential to memory: Research in the elderly who’ve maintained sharp
minds shows they have preserved their ACGs and other significant brain areas as
they have aged.15
prefrontal cortex (PFC), the chief executive officer of your brain, essential
for planning and organization, is also activated by meditation. So is the
posterior cingulate gyrus (PC), one of the first areas to decline in function
when memory loss strikes.
findings have led Andrew Newberg, M.D., of Thomas Jefferson Medical School, to
say, “There is a true anti-aging effect in long-term practitioners of KK; they
have bigger brains.”
Increased Size of PFC and ACG after Eight Week Program of 12 Minutes a day of KK.13 (Courtesy of the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation.)
study at the University of Pennsylvania, which followed people with early
cognitive decline for eight weeks, demonstrated that practicing the
yoga/meditation technique started reversing memory loss and reduced anxiety,
two hallmarks of early AD.16
A UCLA study of family dementia caregivers
revealed that KK not only lowered their stress and improved their memory, but
also reduced inflammatory genes and increased the enzyme telomerase by 43
percent, the largest increase ever recorded. Increasing this enzyme elongates
the DNA protective cap, the telomere, which is crucial for a long life and a
Virginia University, subjects with the earliest form of memory loss, subjective
cognitive decline (SCD), showed an improvement in cognitive function with KK.18 And a landmark study at
UCLA found that subjects with an advanced form of early memory loss called mild
cognitive impairment (MCI) had better memory outcomes with KK than those who
practiced a standard memory-improvement approach.19 KK apparently
enhanced brain cell connectivity as well. Importantly, the positive benefits
lasted through the six-month follow up period of the study.20
Figure 2. A
summary of the effects of KK. (Courtesy of the Alzheimer’s
Research and Prevention Foundation.)
practical advantages. It only takes 12 minutes a day and requires no equipment
or lengthy or expensive training sessions. One can practice KK at home with an
easy-to-follow CD, for example, and it is completely safe, with no side effects
reported. Its lack of time requirements makes the practice perfect for
caregivers, and it’s easy for seniors with decreased mobility and activity
Meditation also enhances psychological well-being (PWB) by
promoting acceptance of self and others, increasing self-confidence, reducing
negativity, and providing a foundation for independent living, sustained
personal growth, socializing with like-minded people, service to others, and
aging with purpose. These PWB factors lower the risk for cognitive decline and
help reduce cholesterol and inflammation.21
Purpose in Life is a new movement in neuroscience that links the
belief that one’s life has meaning and purpose to a robust and persistently
improved physiological health outcome—not only to treat AD, but also to treat
spinal cord injuries, stroke, and immunological and cardiovascular issues that
include but extend beyond the brain.22
Positive emotions—love, compassion, and appreciation—counteract
the physiology of the stress response and support a healthy brain throughout
life. Beyond that, PWB may create an enhanced sense of spirituality, which
preliminary studies suggest slows the progression of AD.23 Moreover, per Helen Lavretsky, M.D., a geriatric
psychiatrist at UCLA, spirituality is a way to develop personalized,
patient-centered healthcare. There is evidence of a close relationship between
spirituality, cognitive health, and successful aging.24 Finally, in a
very recent, and as of yet, unpublished three-year study, spirituality was
associated with lowered atrophy rates in brain regions related to memory,
visuospatial attention, and behavioral deficits in subjects at risk for AD.25
As it currently stands, or until the pharmaceutical world can meet
the enormous challenge of discovering the magic anecdote that can make amyloid
disappear, living a healthy life offers the best chance for aging AD-free and
nourishing a sharp mind. Small, easily achieved shifts in one’s daily routine
can make all the difference in brain health. If everyone made such shifts, it
is likely that the widespread prediction of a continuing Alzheimer’s epidemic
would shift, too, with fewer reported cases.
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