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4 Tips for Alzheimer's Prevention

Many of us fear our own golden years may be tarnished by Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia. While some factors can’t be changed, up to one-third of cases are influenced by lifestyle--and therefore, are potentially preventable. The Savvy Psychologist offers 4 tips to keep your brain fit and healthy for years to come.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #31

Tip #2: Quit Smoking and Drink in Moderation (Or Not at All)

Yes, these are also lifestyle changes, but they’re so important they deserve their own tip. In a 2008 study of people over 65, those who drank more than two alcoholic drinks a day developed Alzheimer’s almost 5 years earlier than those who drank less. Those who smoked a pack a day or more got it almost two and a half years earlier. Mix heavy smoking and drinking and, on average, folks got Alzheimer’s six to seven years earlier than they would have otherwise.

Tip #3: Train Your Brain, But Not Necessarily by Staring at a Screen

In the late 1990’s, almost 3,000 older adults participated in a study where they attended ten brain-training classes of around an hour each. In the classes, they learned one of three things: memory strategies, how to solve problems that follow patterns, or skills to locate visual information quickly, like looking up phone numbers or reacting to traffic.

The participants, whose average age was 74 during the classes, not only improved their cognitive skills during the training, but when researchers tested them again 10 years later, the problem-solving and quick-reaction groups continued to show improvements. Only the memory group did not.

So brain training is beneficial and, in some areas, it even has long term effects. But it’s important not to misrepresent brain training as a miracle cure. Indeed, a 2013 meta-analysis—a study of studies—found that training your memory, for example, does indeed help your memory, but the effects don’t generalize to other skills. In other words, playing Angry Birds will make you better at Angry Birds, but not better at calculus. 

Regardless, engaging your brain with the world is never a bad thing. And you don’t have to rely on an app or slog through puzzles as if you were taking medicine. (But if you like apps and puzzles, more power to you and your cortex!) If Sudoku’s not your style, you could take a continuing education course, try an activity you’ve never tried before, learn a new language, attend concerts, lectures, or plays, or simply read. Even driving a different route home from the grocery store will make those neurons fire.

Tip #4: Ditch the Cynicism

A 2014 study found that individuals high in cynical distrust, defined as "the belief that others are selfish and manipulative," were more likely to develop dementia than those low in cynical distrust. So reign in your judgment and give others the benefit of the doubt. You don’t have to be a Pollyanna, but to all you curmudgeons and killjoys—you may wish to consider wringing out that wet blanket.

To wrap up, remember that only a portion of what contributes to Alzheimer’s is controllable. You can do everything “right” and it still might not prevent the disease. But think of it this way: the things you can’t control—like genetics—set your start point, and your lifestyle choices—like whether or not you smoke, how often you exercise, or how often you roll your eyes and mutter “Yeah, right”—can increase or decrease your risk of getting dementia, or delay or hasten its onset.

Finally, it’s important to say that if someone you love has dementia, don’t blame the victim. Instead, offer support, love, and patience. If you take care of someone with dementia, my hat is off to you; be sure to seek support for yourself. too.

Again, we don’t have total control over whether or not dementia develops. But taking care of your brain now can only improve your quality of life today, as well as in the future..

REFERENCES:

Alzheimer's Association. www.alz.org

American Academy of Neurology.  News release, American Academy of Neurology 60th Anniversary Annual Conference, Chicago, April 12-19, 2008.

James, B.D., Leurgans, S.E., Hebert, L.E., Scherr, P.A., Yaffe, K., & Bennett, D.A.  (2014).  Contribution of Alzheimer disease to mortality in the United States.  Neurology. DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000000240

Melby-Lervat, M. & Hulme, C. (2013).  Is working memory training effective?: A meta-analytic review.  Developmental Psychology, 49, 270-91.

Neuvonen, E., Rusanen, M., Solomon, A., Ngandu, T., Laatikainen, T., Soininen, H. et al.  (2014).  Late-life cynical distrust, risk of incident dementia, and mortality in a population-based cohort.  Neurology, 17, 2205-12.

Norton, S., Matthews, F.E., Barnes, D.E., Yaffe, K., & Brayne, C.  (2014).  Potential for primary prevention of Alzheimer’s disease: An analysis of population-based data.  The Lancet Neurology, 13, 788-94.

Rebok, G.W., Ball, K., Guey, L.T., Jones, R.N., Kim, H-Y., King, J.W., et al. (2014).  Ten-year effects of the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly cognitive training trial on cognition and everyday functioning in older adults.  Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 62, 16-24.

Thacker, E.L, Gillet, S.R., Wadley, V.G., Unverzagt, F.W., Judd, S.E., McClure, L.A., et al. (2014).  The American Heart Association Life’s Simple 7 and incident cognitive impairment: The REasons for Geographic And Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) study.  Journal of the American Heart Association: e000635.

Photos of brain eraser, heart health, and caring for the elderly courtsey of Shutterstock.

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. 

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