How to Protect Against Alzheimer's Disease

Is it possible to keep your brain as fit as your body?


The following article comes from the U.S. News ebook, How to Live to 100, which is now available for purchase.

Charles Snelling spent six years taking care of his Alzheimer's-stricken wife, Adrienne, helpless as he watched the disease steal his college sweetheart. In March, after six decades of marriage, Snelling killed his longtime partner, and then he killed himself. Both were 81. "After apparently reaching the point where he could no longer bear to see the love of his life deteriorate further, our father ended our mother's life and then took his own life as well," his children said in a statement. "This is a total shock to everyone in the family, but we know he acted out of deep devotion and profound love."

Indeed, Alzheimer's disease unleashes a devastating, sometimes unmanageable burden. It is a leading cause of disability and death, with numbers poised to explode in coming years as the older population grows. (Symptoms typically first appear after age 60.) By 2050, an estimated 16 million people will be diagnosed with Alzheimer's, the most common type of dementia, and roughly 5.4 million Americans are currently living with the condition, according to a March report by the Alzheimer's Association, a nonprofit advocacy group. One person develops Alzheimer's every second. It's the 6th leading cause of death in the United States, and the 5th for those age 65 and older. And there's no cure. "We should be very worried," says Reisa Sperling, director of the Center for Alzheimer's Research and Treatment at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

In 2011, President Obama signed the National Alzheimer's Project Act, a law aimed at raising Alzheimer's profile, increasing funding for research and fighting Alzheimer's with an intensity equal to that in the war against cancer and heart disease. The hope: to wipe out or at least better treat Alzheimer's by 2025. Officials are frustrated that, while death rates from stroke, prostate cancer, breast cancer, heart disease, and HIV declined between 2000 and 2008, the death rate from Alzheimer's jumped by 66 percent.

[See: 6 Ways to Protect Yourself Against Alzheimer's and Dementia]

Unfortunately, there's no concrete evidence that any protective step—be it brain games or dietary supplements—lowers the chances of Alzheimer's, according to a 2010 report by the National Institutes of Health. Although observational and animal studies show promise that the disease can be sidestepped, there's a lack of robust clinical studies involving humans, the gold standard in clinical research. "Can I say that exercise or diet will reduce your risk of Alzheimer's or delay onset so you get it at a later age? No, because we don't know for sure at this point," says Laurie Ryan, program director of Alzheimer's Disease Clinical Trials with the National Institute on Aging. "But the data we do have suggests that healthy living promotes healthy aging, which can only be good for you, even if it doesn't prevent or slow down onset."

Says Sperling: "It comes down to keeping the brain active mentally, the body active physically, and staying active socially. That combination is important." Here's what science suggests may help, and certainly won't hurt:

Keeping your brain sharp. People who challenge their brains throughout their lifetime by reading, writing, or playing games might be less likely to develop beta-amyloid plaques, abnormal protein deposits that are a hallmark of Alzheimer's. That's according to a small study published in January in the Archives of Neurology. The findings, based on brain-imaging, hint that people who stay mentally engaged from childhood on may lower their risk of Alzheimer's. Study participants who had only recently taken up crosswords or other mental exercises did not see much benefit, suggesting that early engagement is key. "It's interesting data," Sperling says. "It shows that there's no relationship between current activities and protection—it has to do with early life engagement."