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.
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."
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.
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.
Keep in mind that no matter how many changes you make, or how many steps you take in the right direction, there are no guarantees. "Science is unlocking many of the mysteries of the brain, but we don't have all the answers yet," says Heather Snyder, senior associate director of medical and scientific relations with the Alzheimer's Association. "You can do everything 'right'—stay physically active, eat a low-fat and low-cholesterol diet, remain socially and mentally active, and still not prevent Alzheimer's disease. We need more research before we can answer these types of questions."