Can You Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease?

Some behaviors may reduce your risk of developing dementia.

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If you’re like me, every time you forget your keys or the name of a favorite actor playing in an old movie, you start worrying that you’re starting down the long slide to dementia, if not Alzheimer’s disease.

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Alzheimer’s and dementia are actually very different issues. Dementia refers to a set of symptoms that include memory loss, impairment of judgment, and difficulty with language. Alzheimer's is a brain disease that accounts for 60 to70 percent of the cases of dementia, but other disorders such as vascular disease and Parkinson’s can also cause dementia.

Over 5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s. And experts estimate that with our aging population, the number of cases will more than triple to over 16 million by 2050.

Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s disease is still a mystery to medical science. Although there is clearly some genetic component, researchers do not understand what really causes the disease or even exactly what it is. Amyloid plaques are found in the brains of Alzheimer’s victims. But do the plaques cause the disease, or are they merely a symptom? Doctors are working on tests to predict whether or not you will develop Alzheimer’s, but so far there is nothing definitive. Pharmaceutical companies have produced drugs that will ameliorate symptoms, but there is no cure.

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If we don’t even know how we get Alzheimer’s, how can we possibly know how to prevent it? There’s no proof that we can. But a recent University of California at San Francisco study identified several risk factors. “What’s exciting is that this suggests that some very simple lifestyle changes such as increasing physical activity and quitting smoking could have tremendous impact on preventing Alzheimer’s and other dementias,” says study author Deborah Barnes.

It’s not surprising that the main risk factors for Alzheimer’s are the same ones that put you at risk for heart disease and overall poor health. The study named seven main pathways to Alzheimer’s: physical inactivity, depression, smoking, mid-life hypertension, mid-life obesity, low education, and diabetes.

So if you want to prevent Alzheimer’s, stop smoking, get treatment for depression or anxiety, and engage in some sort of physical activity like walking, biking, dancing, or swimming. Go take an adult education class at your community college, join a bridge club, or start doing crossword puzzles. And if you’re overweight, shed some of those extra pounds.

Other studies have supported the UCSF conclusion that people who avoid the risk factors are better protected against cognitive decline than those who don’t. In addition, research has suggested that people who exercise and keep their minds engaged are better able to retain normal memory and brain function, even if they do develop the telltale brain plaques associated with Alzheimer’s.

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There is also evidence that people who stay socially active are also at reduced risk for dementia. So go out and play golf with your buddies, attend church and stick around for the after-service social hour, or join a group that plays poker or pinochle. There’s no proof positive that taking these steps will prevent Alzheimer’s. But it’s the prudent thing to do.

Tom Sightings is a former publishing executive who was eased into early retirement in his mid-50s. He lives in the New York area and blogs at Sightings at 60, where he covers health, finance, retirement, and other concerns of baby boomers who realize that somehow they have grown up.