A progressive cerebral disorder that causes brain cells to die, Alzheimer’s disease is characterised by gradual loss of memory and cognitive function, and has a significant impact on daily life and independence (1).
Though it affects less than 1% of under-70s, prevalence of the disease increases with age. Thus in the 70-79 age group, 1 in 25 people will be affected, rising to 1 in 5 of those aged 80-89, and 1 in 3 of those over 90. Indeed, almost 4 million people in Europe suffer from Alzheimer’s disease (2-3).
The precise mechanisms behind Alzheimer’s have yet to be established, but scientists agree that its development is linked to the accumulation of certain proteins in the brain (amyloid and tau), which ordinarily are soluble and eliminated from the body. When they accumulate, however, they form plaques around brain cells, preventing them from functioning properly and ultimately destroying them (4-5).
Alzheimer’s-preventive measures are therefore primarily centred on maintaining a healthy brain and stimulating production of new brain cells to replace those lost with advancing age. The idea is to preserve, and if possible increase, your cognitive and cerebral reserve (6).
Generally speaking, one of the surest ways of preventing Alzheimer’s is to lead a healthy lifestyle (7).
Exercise is a key element here. Taking regular exercise stimulates blood flow, particularly in the brain, which helps maintain healthy organs (8).
In addition, regular physical activity promotes the production of endorphins which affect mood, and dopamine which also influences mood, but in addition, acts as a stress-buster and helps ensure good quality sleep. Mental equilibrium and restorative sleep are both key factors in preventing Alzheimer’s.
Indeed it’s during sleep phases that amyloid and tau proteins are eliminated effectively from the brain. Good quality sleep is thus crucial in preventing Alzheimer’s (9).
Finally, recent studies have shown that taking 30 minutes of intense physical activity a day stimulates the formation of new brain cells. Exercise thus helps to preserve brain reserve (10).
As we’ve seen, advancing age causes the brain to become less effective at eliminating amyloid and tau proteins, ultimately leading to the death of brain cells. One solution, therefore, is to stimulate the brain: the greater the brain reserve, the longer it will be before dementia symptoms appear (11-12).
In fact, studies have shown that a lifelong low level of education and cognitive stimulation is one of the Alzheimer’s risk factors that could be most effectively mediated (13).
Similarly, other studies have demonstrated that intellectual, physical and artistic activity, social and professional interaction, being bilingual, playing a musical instrument, and literacy all have a positive influence on cognitive and cerebral reserve and lower the risk of dementia (14-19).
More specifically, there is a significant delay in the appearance of symptoms in people who engage in these activities.
So a second important step in preventing Alzheimer’s is to provide your brain with constant stimulation by continuing to learn new things throughout life.
In short then, preventing Alzheimer’s means putting down your smartphone and picking up a book, ‘going back to school’ and making music. Not the most unpalatable therapy …
While it has already been widely demonstrated that a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids is essential for maintaining a healthy brain and preventing mental problems such as depression and stress, both of which are risk factors for Alzheimer’s, adopting a Mediterranean-type diet also helps to protect against the disease, according to France’s Fondation Vaincre Alzheimer (Foundation for Overcoming Alzheimer’s) (20).
This is because a diet such as this is not only rich in omega-3 fatty acids, but also contains high levels of antioxidants, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin B2 and vitamin B6, which help to reduce fatigue and maintain normal psychological function (21-22).
Studies are also evaluating the potential of certain plants to help combat Alzheimer’s and maintain brain health.
In one Californian study, for example, in vitro and in vivo tests showed that turmeric destroyed and prevented the formation of amyloid protein plaques in the brain (23).
Other research has looked at the potential of tiger grass (Centella asiatica, also known as gotu kola), for improving Alzheimer’s-related behavioural deficits (24).
Last but not least, scientists are examining the effects of huperzine, the active principle in Huperzia serrata, a plant used in traditional Chinese medicine, for treating memory problems. Huperzine is believed to inhibit the production of acetylcholinesterase. This is an enzyme which causes damage to acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that promotes memory and cognitive function (25).
In summary then, key factors in preventing Alzheimer’s disease are regular exercise, good quality sleep, brain stimulation and a healthy diet. But any way in which you can lower your risk of developing this neurodegenerative disease is to be embraced, and to this end, certain plants and vitamins appear to offer valuable support.
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