The #1 Way to Prevent Alzheimer's Disease

Hint: It's not crossword puzzles, but it is easy—and you may already be doing it.

By Sara Schwartz

You've added crosswords to your morning routine and listen to classical music regularly, but it turns out, mental gymnastics aren't the best way to keep your brain in tip-top shape. In fact, actual gymnastics would be more effective.

A growing amount of evidence suggests that physical activity is the best way to prevent Alzheimer's disease.

Scary fact: 1 in 8 Americans over the age of 65 (5.2 million in all) has Alzheimer's disease, according to the Alzheimer's Association. And what's even scarier — this debilitating brain disorder has no cure, making preventive action all the more important.

Characterized by extreme forgetfulness and confusion, Alzheimer's disease is defined as "a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking, and behavior. Symptoms usually develop slowly and get worse over time, becoming severe enough to interfere with daily tasks."

Get to Know the Signs
Difficulty with memory, thinking, and reasoning are the first signs, which can start to occur up to 20 years before a clinical diagnosis, according to Heather M. Snyder, Ph.D, Senior Associate Director of Medical and Scientific Relations for the Alzheimer's Association. Other signs include:

  • Confusion with time or place
  • Trouble understanding visual images or spatial relationships
  • Difficulty with word retrieval
  • Inability to retrace your steps
  • Poor judgment and decision-making

"Changes might be different for each individual," says Dr. Snyder. "For example, I balance my checkbook every week and have done so since college. If I suddenly notice I'm having difficulty with that, it might be a time to seek further evaluation." The red flag in that situation is having a harder time with activities you do regularly and normally don't have to think about, Dr. Snyder stresses.

Although researchers don't fully understand why these brain changes occur, advancing age, a family history of the disease, and certain "risk" genes play a role. Some researchers have also drawn conclusions about a link between diabetes and Alzheimer's, saying a diet high in fat, sugar, and processed foods influences the way your brain metabolizes sugars, but evidence is inconclusive. Dr. Snyder says diabetes is a risk factor for Alzheimer's, as is heart disease, but that the medical community is still grasping for answers, hence the struggle to find a therapy that reverses the effects.

What You Can Do
We know working out doesn't always sound appealing, but what if we told you it could preserve your brain function? Several recent studies indicate that physical activity, specifically resistance or weight training, has the best outcome in terms of Alzheimer's prevention, says Dr. Snyder. More research is needed to determine why resistance training is more effective, she adds. "This is really the first set of studies that look at the type of exercise."

According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise in general benefits the brain, because it both increases oxygen-rich blood flow and produces chemicals that protect the brain by countering some of the natural, age-related reduction of brain connections.

While aerobic training, like running, walking, and biking, is still great for heart health, Dr. Snyder recommends incorporating resistance training, which includes exercises done with rubber resistance bands or tubes, body weight-bearing exercises such as push-ups, sit-ups, and squats, and exercises done with dumbbells or weight machines. The Mayo Clinic recommends exercising a few times a week for 30 to 60 minutes. Consult with your doctor or a fitness professional to find a safe and effective workout for you.

The Alzheimer's Association also recommends a healthy body-and-mind strategy that includes:

  • Following a heart-healthy diet (filled with dark leafy vegetables) and/or a brain-healthy diet
  • Engaging in lifelong learning
  • Remaining socially active
  • Protecting your brain by wearing a seatbelt in the car, a helmet when riding a bike, and "fall-proofing" your home as much as possible

Physical activities that also involve mental activity–plotting your route, observing traffic signals, avoiding obstacles–provide additional value for brain health. Plus, doing these activities with a companion offers the added benefit of social interaction.

If your loved one shows signs of Alzheimer's or has already been diagnosed, Dr. Snyder stresses the importance of educating yourself as a caretaker—and as a someone affected by this disease. The Alzheimer's Association offers local community resources, like support groups, education programs, and 800 hotlines.

Read legendary Hollywood director and producer Garry Marshall's personal story about Alzheimer's disease >>

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Yes, it would be just great if I could exercise. I always did in the past. Now I go to the local Y and use the Nustep. It is the only machine I am able to use. I have spinal stenosis and multiple herniated disks and can't stand or walk for more than a very few minutes at a time. I have had medical opinions given to me which have stated a 50% chance that surgery would work. It would be a long surgery with a lengthly recovery. I take medication and use the Nustep and use a shopping cart as a walker in some stores. I have pain in my lower back and down my right leg.

blondie24 on 2014-09-11 19:46:36

I know that I should probably vary my daily exercise routine but riding my stationary bike is the only exercise I found that allows me to read and work out at the time time. I actually look forward to going for my morning bike ride along with my favorite author.

YvonneJ on 2014-09-08 10:31:54

I have also been told tht knitting or crocheting helps keep the m ind sharp and alert.

DOWAGERMUM@YAHOO.COM on 2012-11-09 09:06:53

Eliminating aluminum from your diet is a great step, too. Astaxanthin is one of my top antioxidant finds, it's natural and very beneficial!

kurteb on 2012-11-08 21:04:34