How to Protect Against Alzheimer's Disease

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

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[See: Fight These 4 Causes of Aging]

Eating a healthy diet. To thrive, your brain needs the right combination of nutrients. A brain-healthy diet is low in fat and cholesterol, reduces the risk of heart disease and diabetes, and encourages good blood flow to your noggin. Maintaining an appropriate weight may count, too. One study of 1,500 adults found that those who were obese in middle age were twice as likely to develop dementia in later life as their normal-weight peers. Study participants with high cholesterol and high blood pressure—which are both influenced by diet—had six times the risk of dementia. Certain foods may play a role in protecting brain cells: Dark-skinned fruits and veggies, like kale, spinach, broccoli, prunes, raisins, blueberries, and red grapes, are rich in antioxidants thought to protect cognitive function while aiding in the reversal of cognitive decline. Cold-water fish, such as halibut, mackerel, salmon, trout, and tuna, contain healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which slow the accumulation of brain-clogging plaques. Other smart choices: almonds, pecans, and walnuts, which contain vitamin E, an antioxidant thought to preserve brain health. What's unclear is how much of these foods you would have to consume to see a benefit.

Socializing. Social interaction stimulates connections between brain cells. When we talk with others, we use parts of the brain that otherwise remain idle. Even better? Physical activity coupled with social engagement—a combination that's been associated with a lowered risk of dementia. "When people ask me if they should do crossword puzzles or Sudoku, I suggest ballroom dancing or taking a tai chi class," says Sperling. "It's perfect—you're learning something new, there's social interaction, and there's at least some physical activity."

Adjusting your lifestyle. Smokers have a higher risk of cognitive decline as they age. The story is similar for heavy drinkers. Research presented at a 2008 conference of the American Academy of Neurology found that people who had more than two alcoholic drinks a day developed Alzheimer's almost five years earlier, on average, than lighter drinkers.

[See: 7 Mind-Blowing Benefits of Exercise]

Exercising regularly. Get moving to keep your body and your brain fit. Even mild activity like a leisurely walk helps keep your brain sharp, fending off memory loss and keeping skills like vocabulary retrieval strong. In a 2011 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, Canadian researchers analyzed the energy expenditure and cognitive functioning of elderly adults over the course of two to five years. Most of the participants weren't gym rats; their activities revolved around short walks, cooking, gardening, and cleaning. Still, compared with their sedentary peers, the most active participants scored significantly better on tests of cognitive function, and they showed the least amount of cognitive decline. By study's end, roughly 90 percent of them could think and remember just as well as they could when the study began. And a study published in the journal Neurology this week, based on 716 dementia-free men and women in their 70s and 80s, also suggested that any physical activity, not just activity that takes the form of exercise, may protect against Alzheimer’s. People who landed in the bottom 10 percent of physical activity levels were more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as their more active peers. Washing dishes, cooking, cleaning, gardening, and playing cards were among the activities that seemed to offer protection.