Can Alzheimer's Disease Be Prevented?

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Alzheimer's disease is a brain condition that impacts memory, thinking, and behavior. It is a progressive and irreversible form of dementia that is the fifth leading cause of death for adults over 65. There is also no cure for the condition, which is why people often wonder if there is any way to prevent Alzheimer's disease.

So far, research has not found a definitive way to prevent or even delay the disease. Researchers have, however, uncovered a few different strategies that hold promise in the prevention of the condition, although more studies are needed to learn more.

This article explores whether Alzheimer's can be prevented, including some of the factors that researchers believe impact the onset of the condition.

What Might Help Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease

According to a report by the National Academies of Sciences, three primary areas show the most promise as potential interventions to slow or prevent the onset of Alzheimer's-related dementia. These are:

  1. Increased physical activity
  2. Blood pressure control
  3. Cognitive training

Increased Physical Activity

Exercise is linked to a wide range of both physical and mental health benefits, so it makes sense that research might implicate it as a possible preventative tool for Alzheimer’s. Exercise can also reduce the risk for other health conditions that often affect people as they age, including depression, falls, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

While it shows the most promise of all the prevention methods that researchers have explored, experts caution that there is not enough evidence to suggest that exercise can prevent Alzheimer’s. However, it is essential to note that regular physical activity is associated with a lower risk of mild cognitive impairment as people age.

The National Institute on Aging defines mild cognitive impairment as thinking and memory problems that are more serious than the typical memory declines associated with the aging process. People with mild cognitive impairment may find themselves losing things often, forgetting appointments, and having more trouble coming up with words than other people in their age group. 

Mild cognitive impairment is also often a precursor to the onset of Alzheimer's disease. People over the age of 65 who have mild cognitive impairment have a 7.5% chance of developing Alzheimer's within a year of being diagnosed. Within three years, that risk jumps up to 20%.

While the research is still out on whether exercise might have a prescriptive benefit for preventing Alzheimer’s, there is evidence about the consequences of not getting regular physical activity. Less active people are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

According to one study published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, being sedentary raises the risk of dementia as much as genetic factors. In other words, not exercising wipes out any genetic benefits you might have.

Controlling Blood Pressure

Managing high blood pressure is important for reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, but it may also help prevent Alzheimer's disease. Past studies have found a link between high blood pressure and dementia.

While research is still ongoing, some existing research suggests that controlling blood pressure alone isn't a sure-fire prevention method. In one clinical trial, lowering blood pressure did not significantly impact dementia risk.

As with studies on exercise, however, the trial did find that reducing blood pressure lowered the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment.

Cognitive Training

Cognitive training, also referred to as brain training, involves strategies designed to maintain or improve cognitive abilities, including memory, processing speed, and reasoning skills. This type of training has been explored to improve mental skills, but it also shows some promise in the prevention of Alzheimer's disease. 

One study found that cognitive training focused on improving processing speed was associated with decreased dementia ten years later.

Regular daily activities that utilize cognitive skills also appear to be beneficial. In one study of 2,000 adults over the age of 70, participating in activities like using computers, playing games, and socializing with other people was linked to a lower risk of mild cognitive impairment in the four years after.

Regardless of its potential in the prevention of Alzheimer's, research does support the use of such interventions to help aging adults keep their minds and mental skills sharp.

In a study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, participants over 65 participated in training focused on improving processing speed, memory, and reasoning skills. After 10 initial training sessions, some participants also had booster sessions after 11 months and three years. 

All participants reported improvements in their ability to perform daily activities for as long as 10 years after this training. This training helped older adults with practical skills such as remembering to take their medications.

Other Strategies to Consider

In addition to getting enough exercise, controlling blood pressure, and keeping your brain active, some evidence suggests that a few other factors may also play a role in preventing Alzheimer's-related dementia.

Diet

Some evidence suggests that following a Mediterranean diet may prevent Alzheimer's. The diet may also help slow the progression of the illness. 

The MIND Diet

A Mediterranean diet is rich in fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, nuts, legumes, whole grains, fish, and healthy oils. It also includes moderate amounts of dairy and eggs.

The MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) combines elements of a Mediterranean diet with the DASH diet. DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is an approach to eating that can help reduce blood pressure. The MIND diet may be beneficial since it also helps lower blood pressure, which may also help prevent Alzheimer's disease.

The MIND diet limits the amount of sugar, butter, margarine, fried food, cheese, and red meats that people consume. It instead encourages people to primarily eat from the following food groups:

  • Leafy green vegetables (at least six servings per week)
  • Vegetables (at least one serving per day)
  • Berries (at least two servings per week)
  • Whole grains (at least three servings per day)
  • Nuts (at least five servings per week)
  • Poultry (two servings per week)
  • Fish (one serving per week)
  • Beans (three servings per week)
  • Olive oil
  • Wine (one glass per day)

One study suggests that even moderate adherence to the MIND diet may help reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's. The study found that those who followed the diet for four and a half years experienced a 53% reduction in their risk for Alzheimer's disease compared to people who didn't follow the diet.

Sleep

Sleep plays a pivotal role in mental and physical well-being, and some evidence indicates that getting enough rest might help reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer's. Sleep has an important impact on normal memory functioning throughout life. 

Studies also suggest that poor sleep increases the risk of developing dementia. Researchers suspect that sleep helps prevent deposits of beta-amyloid proteins from building up in the brain. This protein is what clumps together to form the plaques in the brain that are characteristic of Alzheimer's. These proteins form during the day, but sleep allows these substances to be flushed out of the brain.

One study found that getting better sleep reduced the risk of developing the condition among people who have an increased genetic risk for developing Alzheimer's disease.

Do Supplements Help?

While there has been considerable interest in the question of whether vitamins or supplements might reduce Alzheimer's risk, the evidence thus far has pointed to no such benefit.

How to Reduce Your Risk

The National Institute on Aging recommends the following lifestyle changes to help decrease your risk for developing problems with memory and thinking as you age:

  • Avoid excessive alcohol consumption
  • Manage other health conditions, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and depression
  • Get regular exercise
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Keep your mind active
  • Socialize with friends and family
  • Avoid smoking
  • Get enough sleep each night

Importance of Early Detection

While more research is needed to understand better what can be done to prevent Alzheimer's, one important thing you can do is be aware of the early symptoms of the condition. While it is an understandably upsetting diagnosis, early detection may help people better manage the progression of the disease.

An early diagnosis can:

  • Help people understand their symptoms
  • Aid people in modifying risk factors (such as diet and exercise), which might slow the progression of the disease
  • Help individuals and families plan for the future

Researchers suggest that the earlier people are diagnosed, the more they stand to benefit from both pharmacological and non-pharmacological treatments. There is no cure for Alzheimer's, but medications are available that can improve memory and reduce confusion. Participating in clinical trials is also an option for some individuals.

Recap

While there is currently no cure for Alzheimer's, recognizing the early signs means you can start using interventions early. This doesn't mean you can reverse the condition's onset, but lifestyle changes and medications may slow its course, improve functioning, and allow for greater quality of life.

A Word From Verywell

It is important to remember that each preventative method may help some individuals more than others. Because there are multiple risk factors for Alzheimer's disease, people likely need to utilize more than one strategy to reduce their risk.

The most effective way to potentially prevent or delay the onset of this devastating brain condition is to focus on long-term lifestyle changes, including getting regular exercise, managing your blood pressure, keeping your mind active, and following a healthy diet.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.