Lifestyle changes, lifelong learning can reduce risk of Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s disease, a neurodegenerative disease that causes memory loss, confusion and other kinds of cognitive decline, affects more than six million Americans, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. But there are ways to be proactive and help reduce your risk of developing it.

“I have patients who come to me fearing the worst,” said Dr. Robert Beck, of Lawrence Neurology Specialists. “They see friends and family who have Alzheimer’s or start to develop it and they worry about themselves and their risk.

“You get to retirement age and retire to enjoy life, but then your brain fails you,” he added. “It is completely understandable why people have these fears.”

Beck said a lot of research has shown that if you lead a healthy lifestyle and manage risk factors such as diabetes and hypertension, you can reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s at a younger age. He cited several studies that suggest that lifestyle changes can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by as much as 60%.

“Rather than developing this disease at 80, with lifestyle changes, for some people, it could be 100 years old instead,” Beck said. “The earlier you start with these healthy life choices, the better. However, it is never too late to start.” 

What does a healthy lifestyle look like? It varies from person to person, and it is important to have regular visits with your primary care provider to monitor your health. Beck said there are some things that can dramatically reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s:

• Eating a healthy, minimally processed, plant-centered diet

• Maintaining an ideal body weight

• Exercising by walking about 30 to 45 minutes a day

• Optimizing your career — in many cases, the more complicated your job is, the less likely it is you will get Alzheimer’s

• Finding something you love to do and socializing with others

• Continuing to learn and develop new skills even after retirement

“There is a fair chance we can put off Alzheimer’s not with a drug, but with quality of life,” Beck said. “For those who are retirees, it is so important to get into a schedule and add variety into it. We are all creatures of habit and this can sound overwhelming to some, but it can be so beneficial.”

Beck said he’s seen patients who have retired, started to notice memory issues and then gone back to school to get an associate’s degree or just take a few engaging classes. Taking steps like these can improve your memory.

“I tell my patients (that) when they retire, they need to do something to keep their brains engaged,” Beck said. He said that retirees might not want to hear that mentally stimulating work decreases the likelihood of Alzheimer’s, but that there are ways to get the same benefits while having fun.

“Start a career you’ve always wanted to try. Go take a history class you never took and want to learn more about,” he said. “Do something you enjoy that challenges you, but don’t just stay inside and relax your life away.”

Whatever you do, Beck said, make sure it’s rigorous enough to really train your brain.

“If your kid came home and you asked what they learned in math and language studies over the last semester and they replied ‘all we did was Sudoku and crossword puzzles for 20 minutes a day,’ would you be satisfied with that?” Beck said. “I would be calling the teacher, mad, knowing my kid is going to fall behind if this is all they do.”

Simple things like games and puzzles exercise only a very small part of the brain. While they can be useful, they pale in comparison to what one could learn from a more comprehensive language or math course. Beck recalls a patient who took a foreign language class and reported that her memory improved rather than declined over the time she was taking the class. 

One thing Beck likes to do for his patients is develop what he calls a “NEURO plan.” The letters stand for:

• Nutrition — maintaining an ideal body weight and cutting out calorie-rich and processed foods

• Exercise 

• Unwinding — with meditation and relaxation techniques

• Restoring — by identifying the best conditions for sleep

• Optimizing — training your cognitive abilities with lifelong learning

Beck said there are plenty of opportunities for older people to be active physically and mentally in Lawrence: “We have free gyms … KU classes for older people and activities that happen often.”

“Start early if you can,” he added. If you’re younger, he said you can “start now even before you have signs of Alzheimer’s. Get involved in your community and keep yourself healthy.”

If you already have early signs of cognitive decline like memory loss, episodes of confusion or disorientation, don’t wait to call a specialist.

— Jessica Brewer is the social media and digital communications specialist for LMH Health, which is a major sponsor of the Journal-World’s Health section.


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