Alzheimer’s disease is one of the diseases we fear most as we get older.
The prospect of slowly losing one’s ability to think, to remember, and to recognize the faces of those we love is terrifying.
There is much research that links hereditary factors with developing the disease. While this isn’t written in stone, there are certain things we do know.
There are particular genes that scientists can “read” to determine, at least broadly, what your risk level is for developing the disease.
But researchers have also found that the “high-risk” version of this gene actually responds more favorably to certain lifestyle changes that we can implement in order to lower our risk.
So, here’s a “plain talk” explanation of the genetic factors that either increase or decrease your risk, along with some ways you can outsmart your genes and stay clear of Alzheimer’s.
Your genes determine your risk…
Your chromosomes are your genetic encoding material. They’re like a map that determines things like hair and eye color but also can tell you how vulnerable you are to various diseases, including Alzheimer’s.
Apolipoprotein E, or APOE, is a gene that’s associated with varying levels of risk for developing Alzheimer’s.
Your risk level depends on which allele of the APOE gene you have. (Alleles are simply alternative forms of a gene that are found at the same spot on a chromosome.)
There are three different alleles of the APOE gene: APOE2, APOE3, and APOE4. Each of us has two of these alleles, in one of six possible combinations: APOE2/APOE2, APOE2/APOE3, APOE2/APOE4, APOE3/APOE3, APOE3/APOE4, or APOE4/APOE4.
Depending on which combination you’ve drawn, your risk for developing Alzheimer’s is either pretty low, average, or pretty high.
APOE2 is rare and is associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s. APOE3 is the most common allele and indicates an average risk. And APOE4, present in up to 15% of people, indicates increased risk for the disease.
… but you have a lot of control
Research has looked into how each of these genes responds to lifestyle interventions to prevent Alzheimer’s. Some interventions work better in people with the high-risk APOE4 gene.
For example, the findings of one study strongly suggested that regular exercise resulted in greater memory improvement for people with the APOE4 gene than in those with other variants of the gene.
Ironically, the high-risk APOE4 gene responds more favorably to exercise as a way to prevent Alzheimer’s than do the other two lower-risk genes.
But regardless of your genes, there are six parts to a “brain-healthy” lifestyle that are entirely under your control…
1. Exercise. Regular exercise can increase brain levels of irisin, a hormone that helps your brain’s hippocampus to store more memories.
Ideally, your exercise program should include some moderate cardio exercise and strength training, as well as weight lifting and coordination and balance exercise. Doing these different types of exercise strengthens different areas of your brain.
2. Social engagement. Loneliness can raise your risk of Alzheimer’s. A 2011 Dutch study found that, apart from other more medical risk factors, feeling lonely increased the risk of clinical dementia.
Volunteering, visiting with neighbors, joining a club or even reaching out by phone or email, can keep you feeling connected.
3. A healthy diet. Alzheimer’s is sometimes called “diabetes of the brain” since insulin resistance can damage neurons and keep them from communicating with each other.
A Mediterranean diet, or its close cousin, the MIND diet, is probably your best bet at eating to prevent Alzheimer’s. It will keep you high on fruits and vegetables, low on sugar, and away from the trans fats found in processed foods.
4. Mental stimulation. In the National Institutes of Health’s ACTIVE study, older adults who received as few as ten sessions of mental training improved their cognitive functioning in daily activities. Not only that, but these improvements were still in evidence ten years later.
Learning a new skill, doing strategy puzzles, taking new routes during your usual routines, and keeping a journal where you observe your environment are all ways to keep your brain active.
5. Good sleep. Disrupted sleep appears to be associated with amyloid plaque buildup in the brain, the hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.
A regular sleep schedule and a relaxing bedtime routine are both good ideas. And, if you suffer from insomnia, be careful about taking long naps during the day. It may just make matters worse.
6. Manage stress. Vital exhaustion is a term for a constellation of emotional symptoms, just as metabolic syndrome is a group of physical symptoms.
The term vital exhaustion refers to a constellation of symptoms including physical exhaustion and feelings of hopelessness. It is considered a strong predictor of heart disease.
Data from the Copenhagen City Heart Study, a long-term study of 20,000 people, indicates that vital exhaustion is also a risk factor for dementia.
Deep breathing and meditation, yoga, a walk in the park… there are so many ways to take control and not let stress get the better of you!
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- Preventing Alzheimer’s Disease — HelpGuide.org
- Family history of Alzheimer’s disease alters cognition and is modified by medical and genetic factors — eLife
- Does APOE4 Impact the Effectiveness of Alzheimer’s Prevention Strategies? — Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation
- Cognitive performance in older women relative to ApoE-epsilon4 genotype and aerobic fitness — Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise
- Feelings of loneliness, but not social isolation, predict dementia onset: results from the Amsterdam Study of the Elderly (AMSTEL) — Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry
- Vital Exhaustion and Incidence of Dementia: Results from the Copenhagen City Heart Study — Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease