Posted on: July 5, 2018
I work with a lot of people who come to me looking for guidance on how to stay healthy while aging. One of the first questions I often hear is: “Is there anything I can do to keep from getting Alzheimer’s?”
That’s a great question, because Alzheimer’s and dementia—dementia is an umbrella term for a range of cognitive impairments and conditions that we associate with growing older, of which Alzheimer’s is the most common—are on the rise. One study estimates that over a half-million people die each year from Alzheimer’s. The rate of new cases has also increased in recent decades.
From a personal standpoint, Alzheimer’s and dementia are scary for me to contemplate too. I’ve spent years honing my medical knowledge and decades more building loving relationships and memories with those close to me. I don’t want to lose that, any more than you do.
But here’s the thing: now is a great time to be asking questions, because we finally have an answer you’ll want to hear. Yes. Yes there is something we can do to keep from developing Alzheimer’s and dementia. Even better, research increasingly indicates that dementia-related conditions can be rolled back.
Understanding Alzheimer’s and Dementia
People who develop Alzheimer’s experience significant memory loss, confusion, and trouble communicating. Other forms of dementia may share these symptoms, although they tend to be particularly severe in Alzheimer’s patients. It can be hard to speak, take any pleasure in life and otherwise be the person you are used to being.
What causes Alzheimer’s and dementia? The short answer—probably not any one factor. However, given that the percentage of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia is continually on the rise, it is almost certain that our contemporary lifestyle has a lot to do with it. Poor nutrition and unhealthy diet, exposure to toxins, lack of exercise, stress and oxidation or exposure to imbalanced free radical molecules are all likely influences.
Research suggests that blood sugar levels play a major role. Indeed, Alzheimer’s is sometimes referred to as Type-3 diabetes, because of the relationship between blood sugar, insulin and the health of your brain cells. Essentially, elevated levels of blood sugar can lead to insulin resistance, a buildup of plaque and inflammation in your brain, which damages your neurons and lays the foundation for developing Alzheimer’s.
Multiple studies have found that people with Type-2 diabetes are considerably more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than average, further indicating a connection to blood sugar, inflammation and insulin.
What can I do to prevent or treat Alzheimer’s and dementia?
For most of my medical career, the conventional wisdom has been the same. Not only is there not really anything we can do to treat Alzheimer’s or dementia, but we can’t even prevent them in the first place. However, new research suggests that the conventional wisdom is simply wrong.
Alzheimer’s and dementia are both preventable and reversible. How? By addressing the different potential factors I mentioned above.
A ground-breaking 2014 clinical trial found that a therapeutic protocol including a low-glycemic, anti-inflammatory diet, probiotics, fasting, exercise, sleep, stress reduction, hormone balancing and supplements actually reversed symptoms of Alzheimer’s or mild cognitive impairment in 9 out of 10 patients studied. Of the 6 patients who were working at the time of their diagnoses, all 6 were able to continue or return to work. A 2016 follow-up study found similarly promising results, with all 10 patients studied experiencing significant improvement.
In other words, wow.
I strongly recommend working with an integrative or functional medicine physician if you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of Alzheimer’s or dementia. However, based on this new research, there is a lot you can do to avoid being in that situation in the first place.
Here are 3 key suggestions for preventing Alzheimer’s and dementia, or even reversing early cognitive decline.
1. Eat a whole foods, anti-inflammatory diet. Because of the link between Alzheimer’s, inflammation and blood sugar, it’s really important to take steps to prevent inflammation from developing in your body. Eating right is the single best way to do that. That means avoiding sugar, corn syrup, soda, artificial ingredients, or processed foods as much as possible. The same goes for refined grains of any kind, especially white flour, trans-fats or vegetable oils, and anything that comes from a factory farm (such as cheap meats, eggs and dairy.) Alcohol and fruit juice contain a great deal of sugar, so that should be avoided as well.
What can you eat? Everything else! Fresh vegetables of all kinds, especially leafy greens. High-quality proteins like pasture-raised meats and eggs, wild-caught fish, beans, lentils, walnuts, and cashews. Healthy fats like avocado, coconut oil, MCT oil, grass-fed butter and extra virgin olive oil are both anti-inflammatory and really good for your brain health. Fresh fruits in moderation. Whole grains should be no more than a side dish. Eating organic as much as you can is important, because pesticides can be neurotoxic.
In short: If you can buy it at your local farmers’ market, it’s probably good for your brain health. If they don’t sell it there, you should probably not eat it. If you’re looking for inspiration for what to cook, consider the traditional Mediterranean diet, which is naturally anti-inflammatory and protects brain health.
It’s also a good idea to pay special attention to your gut health, because that tends to directly affect your brain health. Eat probiotic rich foods, like kefir or sauerkraut, and consider taking a daily probiotic supplement.
As a bonus, consider trying intermittent fasting. This means fasting for at least 12 hours straight out of every 24, and can help you balance your blood sugar and support your brain.
2. Exercise. Exercise is connected to general brain health, and has also been specifically linked to protecting the brain from cognitive decline. At least half an hour a day, almost every day, is a good baseline. As a general rule of thumb, you want to move as much as possible—in addition to exercising, walk as much as you can, and stand instead of sit. A sedentary lifestyle is dangerous for your health and your brain.
3. Take it easy. Stress is believed to be another factor that leads to Alzheimer’s and dementia. So the more you can do to lower your stress, the better. Get plenty of sleep every night (over 8 hours if you can), meditate, take a yoga class, go for nature walks, take a warm epsom salt bath and surround yourself with kind, loving people. Going out of your way to help others can also be a significant mood-booster. A little stress is good—you want to keep your mind in shape with cognitive challenges—but in general, if you feel like life is burning you out, consider what you can do to change.