Over 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease, and the number is rising. The good news is that genetics play only a small part in determining whether you'll develop the disease, and there are many ways you can protect your brain.
According to the Alzheimer's Research & Prevention Foundation (ARPF), someone develops Alzheimer's disease every 68 seconds, and the debilitating disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. That said, there are many science-backed, proven ways that you can prevent Alzheimer's or slow its effects.
From foods to activities to supplements, here are 21 ways that you can keep your brain healthy and protect yourself from Alzheimer's.
1. Stay physically active.Doing at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise five days a week cuts your risk of Alzheimer's in half. ARPF recommends activities such as walking, jogging, and climbing stairs. It's also important to add in some weight-bearing exercise since muscle building increases blood circulation to your brain. Adding in balance and coordination exercises will help even more, as they'll help keep you mentally alert and further strengthen your brain.
2. Keep learning.One of the most important ways to protect your brain and memory is to keep learning new things. Dr. Weil reports that one study showed that those who regularly give their brains workouts with activities like taking classes, reading books, learning new skills and even going to the theater were found to have 2.6 times lower risks of Alzheimer's disease.
3. Drink coffee.It turns out you have a good excuse for that caffeine habit. According to Jean Carper in the book 100 Simple Things You Can Do to Prevent Alzheimer's and Age-Related Memory Loss, one study in Europe found that drinking three to five cups of java a day in your midlife years can reduce your risk of Alzheimer's disease by 65 percent later in life. Theories are that caffeine reduces dementia-causing amyloid in the brain.
4. Protect your head.This should be common sense, but the numbers are dramatic. Alzheimer's is four times more common in seniors who suffered a head injury early in life, and pro football players develop memory-related diseases 19 times more often than the rest of the population.
5. Maintain a healthy weight.Studies have found that overweight people are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer's disease, while obese individuals are three times more likely to develop Alzheimer's, ARPF says.
6. Eat apples every day.Apples contain the "memory chemical" acetylcholine, says Dr. Thomas Shea of the University of Massachusetts, who recommends consuming two to three apples a day or 16 ounces of apple juice.
7. Get lots of Omega 3s.Omega 3 fatty acids have been found to have a dramatic effect on halting memory loss. Scientists have discovered that omega-3 fatty acids may slow the growth of two distinct types of brain lesions that are found in Alzheimer's disease. Omega 3s can be found in fish such as salmon. Vegetarians can get omega 3s from sources like flax seed, hemp seed, and walnuts.
It's also important to reduce intake of unhealthy Omega 6 fats, which are overly abundant in American diets.
Dr. Weil says that no piece of nutritional advice may be more important than consuming more omega-3 fatty acids and fewer omega-six fatty acids. He says that adding wild-caught fatty fish such as Alaskan salmon to your diet is a good way to do this, as well as reducing consumption of fried food, which tends to be saturated with omega-6-rich soybean oil.
8. Take your vitamins (and minerals).Some vitamins can really help protect your brain, whether from food sources or supplements. Some of the best include Vitamin D, Vitamin E, Vitamin B12, Folate, and Magnesium.
9. Manage stress.Stress can have a profoundly negative effect on the brain, specifically the hypocampus. Chronic stress can deprive the brain of oxygen and hinder the growth of nerve cells. Experts advise working to reduce stress through deep breathing and relaxing activities such as playing music, practicing yoga, going for walks, prayer, and reading for pleasure.
10. Do puzzles (yes, still).Recently, headlines have proclaimed that mental exercises like crossword puzzles, sudokus, and brain teasers may not prevent Alzheimer's disease after all, but there's more to the story than what's in the headlines.
Researchers found results in one study that showed that people who report higher levels of intellectual stimulation throughout their lifetimes don't actually exhibit lower levels of protein plaques and other signs of Alzheimer's compared to those who don't, Time reports. That said, they noted that the researchers still found that staying mentally and socially active can push back the symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease by years.
In addition, this was just one study, and previous studies have shown remarkable benefits for those who do mental exercises. In one startling study published in the Archives of Neurology, for instance, researchers reported that elderly patients who engaged in those sorts of activities had dramatically healthier brains, CBS News reports.
"The elderly participants with the most puzzles and books under their belt had brains comparable to those of the healthy controls who were fifty years younger."
11. Spice up your life.Adding turmeric to your regular diet can have a protective effect on your brain. Some studies have shown that curcumin, found in the curry spice turmeric, suppresses the buildup of beta-amyloid, a main component in the harmful plaques in the Alzheimer's-afflicted brain.
12. Maintain a healthy mouth.Infections such as cold sores and gum disease have been linked to dramatically higher incidences of Alzheimer's disease. Studies have found that infections of all types -- such as the flu, Lyme disease, and gastric ulcers -- make the brain more vulnerable to Alzheimer's. Infections of the mouth were found to be especially harmful, though.
Dr. Ruth Itzhaki of the University of Manchester in England estimates the cold-sore herpes simplex virus is linked to 60 percent of Alzheimer's cases. The theory is that infections trigger excessive beta amyloid that kills brain cells.
13. Quit smoking and drinking heavily.Researchers have found that people who smoke and drink heavily develop Alzheimer's years earlier than the rest of the population. Science Daily reports that researchers found that people who were heavy drinkers developed Alzheimer's 4.8 years earlier than those who were not heavy drinkers and heavy smokers developed the disease 2.3 years sooner than people who were not heavy smokers.
"Those who were heavy drinkers and smokers, plus carried the Alzheimer's gene fared the worst, developing the disease an average of 8.5 years sooner than the rest of the population."
14. Eat your veggies.The Alzheimer's Association recommend eating lots of fruits and vegetables, particularly those with dark skins such as spinach, beets, red bell peppers, onions, eggplants, prunes, blackberries, strawberries, red grapes, oranges, and cherries. Some evidence suggests that green, leafy cruciferous vegetables are especially protective.
15. Search the web. Yes, really.
UCLA on Alzheimer's reports that MRIs showed that online searches actually helped improve brain function in elderly test subjects.
"Google. Doing an online search can stimulate your aging brain even more than reading a book, says UCLA's Gary Small, who used brain MRIs to prove it. The biggest surprise: Novice Internet surfers, ages 55 to 78, activated key memory and learning centers in the brain after only a week of web surfing for an hour a day."
16. Take up yoga.The Scientific & Medical Network reports that a recent study compared the benefits of yoga and meditation with doing brain exercises like crossword puzzles. While both groups benefited in memory skills after three months, the yoga group also enjoyed additional benefits such as superior visual and spatial memory skills and less anxiety, which is also associated with Alzheimer's.
17. Meditate.Meditation helps in multiple ways when it comes to warding off Alzheimer's. It's been found to reduce blood pressure, helps relieve stress, and improves breathing. Studies have found that its benefits extend past that, though.
Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found that meditating for 12 minutes a day for two months improved blood flow and thinking in seniors with memory problems. Brain scans have been found to show that people who meditate regularly have less cognitive decline and brain shrinkage (a classic sign of Alzheimer's) as they age.
18. Avoid chronic illness.Chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease have all been found to correlate with Alzheimer's. A study published in the journal Dementia & Geriatric Cognitive Disorders also found that people in their 40s who had mildly elevated cholesterol were at greater risk of developing Alzheimer's later in life.
19. Challenge your brain.Find ways every day to give your brain a workout. Simple ways to do this include keeping a running tally of your bill as you grocery shop and challenging yourself to regularly memorize poetry or proverbs.
20. Get enough sleep.It's imperative to get regular, restful sleep in order to protect your brain from Alzheimer's. Experts recommend eight hours per night of undisturbed sleep.
Lack of sleep interferes with the brain's ability to function properly, along with leaving you irritable and interfering with your body's ability to regenerate. It's also linked to many other conditions that adversely affect brain health, such as chronic stress and illness.
21. Stay social.Having close friends and staying in contact with family members offers a protective effect against the damaging effects of Alzheimer's disease.
According to Science Daily, researchers at Rush University Medical Center found that strong social networks had a dramatic effect on Alzheimer's patients.
"The relationship between the amount of Alzheimer's disease pathology and cognitive performance changed with the size of the social network. As the size of the social network increased, the same amount of pathology had less effect on cognitive test scores."
In other words, for people whose Alzheimer's wasn't very progressed, social network size had little effect on their mental abilities. However, as the disease progressed, the protection that social networks had on their mental abilities increased. Even when the subjects' brains had the tangles and plaques indicative of Alzheimer's disease, their brains continued to perform better if they had a larger social network.
"Our findings suggest that social networks are related to something that offers a 'protective reserve' capacity that spares them the clinical manifestations of Alzheimer's disease."
The takeaway from all of this? Take good care of yourself now -- physically, mentally, and psychologically -- to take good care of your brain for the long term.
[Featured Image by Halfpoint/Shutterstock]