Things You Can Do To Decrease Your Risk Of Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's disease is a type of dementia where an abnormal build-up of proteins called amyloid plaques and tau tangles surround brain cells. These clumps form plaques that block neuronal communication, inhibiting cells from carry out their daily duties. With lack of access to nutrients and impaired communication, Alzheimer's destroys neurons and causes tissue loss. Alzheimer's disease commonly affects the hippocampus, the brain area involved in learning and memory. Neurons dying off and shrinking of the hippocampus can lead to memory loss and mild cognitive impairment, such as not knowing how to cook a meal or make a logical decision. As Alzheimer's progresses, people can forget essential life functions such as how to swallow or move around.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of 2020, 5.8 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease, and experts forecast the case number to triple by 2060. While researchers have not yet found a cure for Alzheimer's, they have pinpointed causes behind it. The National Institute on Aging says that age, along with a combination of genetic and environmental factors, influences the onset of Alzheimer's. However, research shows that practicing healthy lifestyle choices can decrease the risk of Alzheimer's, even if there is a family history of dementia. Keeping your body physically and mentally fit is key — here are some science-backed ways to reduce your risk.

Increase your vitamin D levels

As if you needed another reason to go outside, it turns out that soaking up in the sun may help prevent Alzheimer's disease. Several research studies have found an association between a lack of vitamin D and an early onset of Alzheimer's. A 2014 study in the journal Neurology found people with a vitamin D deficiency had an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease compared to those that did not. In 2019, researchers found moderate-to-severe vitamin D deficiency had the strongest associations for dementia and Alzheimer's. Because vitamin D is critical for brain development, studies suggest that vitamin D may exert a protective effect on the brain. Without it, a vitamin D deficiency may increase the opportunity for amyloid-beta plaques to form and spread.

Taking a vitamin D supplement could help improve your mental abilities and delay Alzheimer-related cognitive impairments. A 2019 study in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry found older adults with Alzheimer's who took daily vitamin D supplements showed better cognitive function and a decrease in biomarkers that indicate the presence of Alzheimer's. Does this mean all you need is vitamin D to make Alzheimer's go away? Not exactly. The Mayo Clinic says that it's too early to start recommending vitamin D pills for Alzheimer's disease. This is because many vitamin D studies are observational — other outside factors could be at play, and it is difficult to perform an experiment that shows vitamin D deficiency directly causes Alzheimer's disease.

Limit the amount of red meat in your diet

Here's the beef with red meat — too much of it may increase your risk of dementia on top of other health conditions such as cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes (via Scripps Institute). A 2020 study in Current Developments in Nutrition found that red meat was associated with worse reasoning ability, poor short-term memory, and poor prospective memory. However, red meat did show a protective effect for conserving visual-spatial memory. According to the Scripps Institute, people who want red meat in their diet should limit their intake to 6 or 8 ounce portions only once or twice a week.

That means the occasional burger is fine, but consider switching your usual order to a plant-based burger — or, as it turns out, you could try lamb. A 2020 study found that eating lamb — but not other red meats — improved long-term cognition. "Depending on the genetic factors you carry, some individuals seem to be more protected from the effects of Alzheimer's, while other seem to be at greater risk. That said, I believe the right food choices can prevent the disease and cognitive decline altogether. Perhaps the silver bullet we're looking for is upgrading how we eat. Knowing what that entails contributes to a better understanding of Alzheimer's and putting this disease in a reverse trajectory," Brandon Klinedinst, a Neuroscience PhD candidate working in the Food Science and Human Nutrition department at Iowa State, told Iowa State University.

Get off your chair and move your body

By now, we've all heard exercise is good for us. Not only does it make us feel better, it puts our body in the best condition to fight against diseases such as Alzheimer's. "The most convincing evidence is that physical exercise helps prevent the development of Alzheimer's or slow the progression in people who have symptoms," Gad Marshall, associate medical director of clinical trials at the Center for Alzheimer Research and Treatment at Brigham and Women's Hospital, told Harvard Health Publishing. The National Health Service recommends at least 150 minutes of exercise every week.

Not exercising or having a sedentary lifestyle can hurt in the long run. A 2017 study found that obesity in midlife was associated with an increased level of amyloid plaques. Additionally, a 2020 study in the Journal of Sport and Health Science showed that physical inactivity was a risk factor for Alzheimer's. However, exercise helped in maintaining people's cognitive abilities by regulating inflammation and brain health. The Alzheimer's Society says exercise doesn't have to mean running a marathon or lifting weights. Activities such as taking a brisk walk, cleaning, or gardening move your body and count as physical activity.

Limit your drinking

A glass of wine after a grueling workday sounds like a great idea to kick back and unwind. And the occasional glass not only helps you relax, it can also boost your brainpower. A 2019 study in Alzheimer's Research & Therapy found a decreased risk of cognitive impairment and dementia in people who engaged in light to moderate drinking during middle to late adulthood. However, in the same 2019 study, the researchers found heavy alcohol use increased the risk of dementia by causing alterations to multiple brain structures, pointing to the fact that excessive drinking causes more harm than good. The National Institutes of Health recommends two or fewer drinks for men and one or fewer drinks for women daily. In the same 2019 study, the researchers found heavy alcohol use increased the risk of dementia by causing alterations to multiple brain structures.

Moderation is key. According to the Alzheimer's Society, heavy drinking makes it harder for brain areas to communicate with each other by shrinking brain volume and reducing white matter. Indeed, a 2018 study published in The BMJ found that people who abstain from alcohol increase their risk of dementia. However, people who drank excessively — more than 14 drinks a week — also had an increased risk. Drinking over 14 drinks a week can worsen cognitive performance compared to people who drink less than one glass a week, according to research.

Kick your smoking habit away

Smoking cigarettes does more harm than good. The nicotine in the smoke releases a neurochemical in the brain called dopamine, which is associated with pleasure and addiction. While tobacco offers temporary stress relief, the CDC says it is also the top cause of preventable deaths in the United States. But tobacco's effect on health is not limited to mortality or causing lung cancer. Alzheimer's Research UK explains that smoking is ranked third out of nine major risk factors for dementia. While scientists are unclear on how tobacco causes dementia, they do know smoking increases the risk of Alzheimer's by 40% compared to people who never smoked. Some research has suggested that tobacco's role in developing early dementia may come from weakening cognitive brain areas. A 2014 review showed evidence that past and current smoking increased the risk of Alzheimer's. Smoking was associated with affecting neurocognitive processes, resulting in memory problems, decreases in processing speed, and loss of hippocampus size. The effects are similar to early stages of Alzheimer's and may accelerate neurocognitive decline. Another hypothesis is that the metals found in nicotine infiltrate and poison the brain. A 2021 study studying the relationship between cigarette smoking and cognitive impairment found that chronic smokers had higher levels of iron, zinc, lead, and aluminum, which correlated with lower performance on cognitive tests compared to nonsmokers.

Manage your high blood pressure

A major risk factor for Alzheimer's disease is high blood pressure. Johns Hopkins Medicine explains that evidence of a brain-blood pressure link first emerged in 2013 when scientists discovered that older adults with high blood pressure or hypertension were more likely to show biomarkers for Alzheimer's in their spinal fluid. Indeed, a 2021 study showed that people with high blood pressure before 35 were more likely to experience cognitive impairment. Additionally, research has shown that young adults or people 35 to 44 years of age with high blood pressure have smaller brain volumes and increased chance of developing dementia.

Johns Hopkins Medicine also says that blood pressure medication can cut the risk of Alzheimer's in half in adults with high blood pressure. A 2019 study from The Lancet Neurology found that any type of antihypertensive medication for lowering blood pressure was helpful in reducing the risk of dementia. "What we found was that if you didn't have Alzheimer's and you were taking blood pressure medication, you were somewhat less likely to develop dementia. And if you had dementia from Alzheimer's disease and you took certain antihypertensives, the disease was less likely to progress," Constantine George Lyketsos, director of the Memory and Alzheimer's Treatment Center at Johns Hopkins, told John Hopkins Medicine. It remains unknown, however, whether the benefit of taking these medications comes from managing the high blood pressure or if there are materials in the drugs that inhibit Alzheimer's progression in the brain.

Learn a second language

While life is never easy, there are reasons to challenge your brain even further from time to time. Learning a new language fits into this category, and the payoff is greater than just being bilingual. Research shows that learning a new language makes it harder for Alzheimer's to develop. Knowing a second language can delay the onset of Alzheimer's by 4.5 years compared to people who speak one language (via Medical News Today). A 2020 study suggests that being bilingual delays the onset of dementia because it increases a person's cognitive reserves (via Alzheimer's Disease & Associated Disorders). Indeed, another study published in Neuropsychologia showed that learning another language exercises specific parts of your brain, "building muscle" by strengthening cortical thickness and gray matter in brain areas involved in memory.

Recently, another 2020 study confirmed findings that bilingual people are more likely to develop Alzheimer's later in life than monolinguals. "Think about taking a new path home," John Grundy, assistant professor of psychology at Iowa State University, told Iowa State University. "The first time you take that path it's going to be difficult to remember it, and maybe that's true the second and third time. But eventually, it gets easier, and you then have multiple pathways to get to the same outcome. You can think about bilingualism like that as well."

Carve out time to hang out with friends and family

Playing hooky from work to meet your friend for happy hour may be good for you in the long run. No matter if you're extraverted or introverted by nature, humans are social creatures (via MercyCare). Whether it's going to a party or commenting on an online post, social interaction leads to better mental health by improving your self-image and giving you a sense of belonging. Some research has also pointed to a relationship between social interaction and decreased incidence of dementia: A 2019 study found that people age 60 and older who had an expanded social calendar were at lower risk of developing dementia. Additionally, more social contact when you're middle-aged maintains high cognitive function.

According to Verywell Health, MRI studies have seen an increase in brain volume and cognitive functioning when people socialized with their friends. That said, the type of social interaction matters: Healthy relationships that make both parties happy and lift each other up are critical to maximizing the benefits of socialization.

Dust off your old piano and learn an instrument

Music is good for the soul, and the brain. While the so-called "Mozart effect" — the thought that having babies listen to Mozart will increase their IQ — is not true (via Parenting Science), there is some evidence that playing music can benefit your cognitive skill. Research shows playing a musical instrument or making music once or twice a week may increase your episodic memory and attention skills.

Music may also have protective effects against Alzheimer's. A 2014 study on sets of twins found siblings who played a musical instrument in older adulthood had a 64% reduced chance of developing dementia or a cognitive impairment, compared to a non-musical twin. "Finding a way to harness this plasticity is probably one of the biggest hopes we have for treating brain disorders or dealing with cognitive decline in advanced age," Brenda Hanna-Pladdy, associate professor of Diagnostic Radiology and Nuclear Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, told CNN. "Similarly, continuing to play music in advanced age added a protective benefit to individuals with less education, which has previously been demonstrated (to be) one of the most robust ways to create cognitive reserve." Recently, a 2021 review in Aging & Mental Health found a strong link between playing a musical instrument and reducing your risk of mild cognitive impairment or dementia.

Follow the Mediterranean diet

Here's a food for thought — your diet defines you. And eating unhealthy foods may increase oxidative stress and inflammation that contribute to Alzheimer-related brain damage, according to research published in Neurology. Depending on what you eat, your diet can also decrease risk factors associated with Alzheimer's, including obesity and type 2 diabetes. "We're seeing these changes only in parts of the brain specifically affected by Alzheimer's, and in relatively young adults," Lisa Mosconi, associate professor of neurology from Weill Cornell Medicine, told the National Institutes of Health. "It all points to the way we eat putting us at risk for Alzheimer's down the line. If your diet isn't balanced, you really need to make an effort to fix it, if not for your body, then for your brain."

Fortunately, there is scientific evidence that the Mediterranean diet increases cognitive abilities and mitigates the chances of Alzheimer's. The 2021 study in Neurology found the Mediterranean diet protects against memory decline by stopping the shrinkage of brain structures. Additionally, a 2018 study found that people who followed a Western diet more than a Mediterranean diet had greater build-up for beta-amyloid deposits, increasing the risk of developing Alzheimer's. Following a Mediterranean diet could also delay Alzheimer's by up to 3 years.

Manage your weight

No one likes to pull out the bathroom scale and look at how much they weigh, but it turns out that weight management is an important aspect in lowering your Alzheimer's risk. Research shows people who become either underweight or obese have an increased risk of dementia. For instance, one 2021 study found the risk of Alzheimer's increased in men who lost 10% to 15% of their weight over 4 years (via Scientific Reports). Another study found that regardless of smoking or genetic factors, people with high BMIs that indicate the individual is overweight or obese were more likely to develop dementia (via International Journal of Epidemiology). Additionally, obesity around the waist was also associated with dementia risk and most likely to occur in women.

"Being overweight is just a risk," Yixuan Ma, a student at University College London, told The New York Times. "It doesn't mean that an overweight person will necessarily get dementia. But for many reasons, it's good to maintain a normal weight and engage in vigorous physical activity over a lifetime."

Get a good night's sleep

If you were looking for a sign to get off your phone and go to sleep, here it is. Science shows a full night of sleep decreases your Alzheimer's risk by protecting your brain from accumulating amyloid-beta plaques. "Growing evidence suggests that improved sleep can help prevent Alzheimer's and is linked to greater amyloid clearance from the brain," Gad Marshall, associate medical director of clinical trials at the Center for Alzheimer Research and Treatment at Brigham and Women's Hospital, told Harvard Health Publishing.

Sleep works by clearing out the toxins and excess waste you've accumulated throughout the day, explains Verywell Health. Sleep resets your brain and clears up space for the next day. "These findings have significant implications for treating 'dirty brain' disease like Alzheimer's," Maiken Nedergaard, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester Medical Center, told Verywell Health. "Understanding precisely how and when the brain activates the glymphatic system and clears waste is a critical first step in efforts to potentially modulate this system and make it work more efficiently." Indeed, a 2020 study shows people have more beta-amyloid plaques when they get less deep sleep (via Current Biology). Another study found people in their 50s and 60s who slept less than 6 hours had an increased dementia risk (via Nature Communications). But oversleeping can be a problem — one study in JAMA Neurology found people who slept less than 6 or more than 9 hours showed more cognitive impairments. Consider aiming for 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night.

Keep your cholesterol levels in check

High cholesterol levels harm your heart, and research suggests it also hurts your brain. According to the Alzheimer's Society, cholesterol is a fatty substance that is circulated through the bloodstream. Cholesterol is produced naturally, and is also found in certain foods we eat. A growing number of researchers are seeing a connection between cholesterol and dementia. The Alzheimer's Society says most observational studies have come to similar conclusions that middle-aged people with high cholesterol levels increase their risk of developing dementia.

Genetics may also play a role in the relationship between cholesterol and dementia. The Alzheimer's Society says the APOE4 gene — a gene associated with late-onset Alzheimer's disease — is also involved in processing cholesterol and fats. Indeed, a 2021 review on cholesterol and dementia found that people who carried the APOE4 gene were at a higher risk for developing late-onset Alzheimer's, but people who carried the APOE2 gene had a decreased risk of it (via Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience). In one 2018 study, researchers found high cholesterol levels also affected cardiovascular associated genes and increased people's risk of Alzheimer's (via Acta Neuropathologica).