By Dr. Brandon Colby MD, a physician-expert in the fields of Genomics and Personalized Preventive Medicine.
Everyone knows that living long enough to reach your old age is a privilege. Even if we don’t like some of the normal effects of aging — wrinkles, a slower metabolism, not knowing how to use social media… —, being able to enjoy your golden years with your loved ones is something that not everyone gets to experience.
However, aging also increases your risk of developing certain diseases. Out of all the illnesses commonly associated with old age, Alzheimer’s disease is probably one of the scariest ones out there. The manifestation of this disease, such as memory loss, cognitive decline, and disorientation, is difficult for patients and their caregivers to come to terms with.
Alzheimer’s disease is the leading cause of cognitive impairment in seniors around the world, and it usually affects people over the age of 65. As you get older, your risk of developing this disease continues to increase.
We know that there are genetic risk factors of Alzheimer’s that play an important role in determining whether someone is affected by Alzheimer’s or not. But in addition to your DNA information, certain lifestyle choices lead to a lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Let’s talk about how natural lifestyle changes can be used for Alzheimer’s prevention.
Preventing Alzheimer’s disease isn’t an exact science — these changes can decrease your risk of developing the condition, but there’s no surefire way to ensure that you’ll never get it. But these lifestyle modifications could still help delay the onset of symptoms and make them more manageable.
Brain training is an easy and effective way to build a strong cognitive reserve, which is your brain’s ability to offset damage. Research shows that although your cognitive reserve isn’t able to prevent the formation of beta-amyloid deposits and plaques — the main pathophysiologic mechanism of Alzheimer’s —, it can preserve your cognitive function despite these deposits.1 The stronger the cognitive reserve, the less patients are affected by amyloid plaques that form between their neurons.
As you build your cognitive reserve, your brain’s neuroplasticity will improve to protect your cognition as you age. It’s important to remember that consistency is key if you want to reap these benefits, and you should try to take up these protective habits as early as possible in life.
Brain games to prevent Alzheimer’s disease are a lot simpler than what you’re probably imagining. Activities as simple as completing the crossword puzzle on your morning newspaper are great ways to engage in brain training, and many people already do these things without even knowing about their cognitive benefits.
Clinical trials have shown that certain types of brain training can reduce a person’s risk of dementia by up to 29 percent, which is a very significant reduction.2 Additionally, brain games can help prevent other types of dementia and mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
Research shows that people who participate in word and number puzzles regularly have better brain function and thinking skills when compared to people in the same age group who don’t take part in these games.3
Some of the most common word and number puzzles include:
- Crossword puzzles
- Word finds
- Word jumbles
- Math riddles
- Math crosswords
One of the great things about technology is that you no longer have to buy a puzzle, book, or magazine if you want to take up brain games. You can simply grab your phone and download a game to achieve the same results; there are hundreds of options available, and many of them are even free!
Computer, mobile, and video games have become increasingly popular over the past few decades — in the future, it’s very likely that most children will grow up playing these games at least occasionally.
And while it’s necessary for parents to supervise the type of games that their children have access to, research shows that videogames may help build a strong cognitive reserve, too. It makes sense: many video games involve complex tasks and tons of eye-hand coordination.
Research shows that video games can even enhance cognitive health in older adults who didn’t grow up playing them. A study found that after four weeks of playing video games during 30-45 minute sessions each day, seniors experienced improved memory skills.4
Card games are probably amongst the oldest types of games in recorded history. They’re also very convenient since anyone can carry a stack of playing cards and play when there’s a few minutes available. Just like word or number puzzles, card games can increase your cognitive reserve and improve your cognitive abilities.5
Popular card games include:
Playing card games and sudoku aren’t the only ways to improve your cognitive reserve. There are many different activities that can strengthen your brain cells and help prevent Alzheimer’s, and you’ll surely be able to find an activity you enjoy. Additional brain training hobbies include:
- Playing a musical instrument
- Learning new languages
- Taking courses
- Practicing a new skill
Healthy eating is one of the cornerstones of a healthy life. Choosing the right foods can help prevent Alzheimer’s and other diseases while helping you maintain your overall health. A healthy diet can also help prevent or manage other conditions that act as risk factors of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia, such as vascular dementia. These conditions include:
- Hypertension, or high blood pressure
- Dyslipidemia, or high cholesterol and/or triglycerides
- Diabetes, or high blood sugar
One of the most effective dietary approaches to prevent Alzheimer’s is the Mediterranean diet. This diet relies on foods that are natural, full of antioxidants and healthy fats, and good for your heart and brain health. Research has found that eating a Mediterranean diet can slow down some of the brain changes that signal early Alzheimer’s diseases.6 When combined with regular physical activity — particularly aerobic exercise —, this diet is a very effective way to improve your health and prevent disease.
The Mediterranean diet is based on eating:
- Large amounts of whole grains, legumes, fatty fish, fruits, vegetables, olive oil, herbs, and nuts.
- Moderate amounts of eggs, dairy, poultry, seafood, and red wine.
- Small or no amounts of red meat, refined foods and oils, added sugar, and processed foods.
A slightly different approach is the MIND diet, which combines the Mediterranean diet with the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. The MIND diet specifically promotes foods that have been shown to improve brain health, such as:
- Leafy greens: six or more servings of kale, spinach, and cooked greens per week.
- Berries: at least two servings of strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries per week.
- Nuts: five or more servings of any type of nut per week.
In addition to these foods, the MIND diet also includes non-starchy vegetables, whole grains, beans, olive oil, nuts, fish, poultry, and red or white wine.
Many commercially available supplements claim to be the definitive cure for different diseases, but in many cases, these claims aren’t evidence-based at all. However, certain supplements have shown promise as adjuvants in the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.
Studies suggest that taking folate at or above the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) each day is associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease.7 Folate can be found in supplements or foods such as:
- Leafy greens
- Brussel sprouts
- Citrus fruits
- Nuts and seeds
Omega-3 fatty acids are popular amongst people who want to protect their brain and heart health. These fatty acids have multiple health benefits, including:
- Better heart health
- Lower anxiety levels
- Improved eye health
- Reduced symptoms of ADHD in children
- Anti-inflammatory activity
- Decreased cognitive decline
- Enhanced bone and bone health
The main genetic risk factor of Alzheimer’s disease is the APOE gene. There are three variants of this gene: APOE2, APOE3, and APOE4. Each of us inherits two copies or alleles of this gene, one from each parent.
APOE2 provides some protection against Alzheimer’s. APOE3 doesn’t increase nor decrease Alzheimer’s risk in most people; however, it can cause a slightly increased risk in those who have additional mutations in the TOMM40 gene. But APOE4, on the other hand, causes a significantly higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease — even if you only inherit a single APOE4 allele from one of your parents.
You would think that since people who inherit the APOE4 variant have the highest genetic risk of Alzheimer’s, that they should be the first ones taking fish oil omega-3 fatty acids supplements. That’s just common sense, right?
Well… not so much.
In fact, research has found that individuals with the APOE4 variant don’t really benefit from taking omega-3 fish oil supplements — and even worse, these supplements could actually cause harm in this group of people.
Brain availability of omega-3 fatty acids is lower in people with the APOE4 allele when compared to those with the APOE2 or APOE3 variants.8 That means that a much higher dose would be required to achieve the desired effect. Additionally, the metabolism of omega-3 fatty acids in the brain of people with APOE4 could actually increase inflammation levels, leading to more damage.
This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to consider genetic testing for Alzheimer’s disease.
Genetic testing for Alzheimer’s can help you access a tailored prevention plan for this disease. From knowing whether you should avoid omega-3 fish oil supplements to prioritizing brain training from an early age, determining your risk of Alzheimer’s disease can be the best way to start preventing it.
As mentioned above, these preventive measures are more effective when they’re taken up long before Alzheimer’s disease develops. Once someone starts to exhibit symptoms of the disease, it’s unfortunately too late to do much about it — current treatments are able to somewhat slow the progression of symptoms, but they can’t cure the disease or make it go into remission.
Therefore, we should all do everything we can to protect our brain health throughout our lives. Even children can benefit from measures such as brain training games and a healthy brain-friendly diet; additionally, these are natural and non-invasive strategies that can fit into practically any healthy lifestyle.
At Sequencing.com, we offer DNA testing that won’t just determine your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Our whole genome sequencing (WGS) technology is able to gather information from each and every single one of your genes, thus providing extensive insights regarding your overall health and wellness, genetic risk of preventable diseases, carrier status for congenital disorders, ancestry and ethnicity, pharmacogenomics profile, and much more.
- Rentz, D. M., Locascio, J. J., Becker, J. A., Moran, E. K., Eng, E., Buckner, R. L., Sperling, R. A., & Johnson, K. A. (2010). Cognition, reserve, and amyloid deposition in normal aging. Annals of neurology, 67(3), 353–364.
- Hara, PhD., Y. (2017, November 28). BRAIN TRAINING CAN REDUCE DEMENTIA RISK. Cognitive Vitality. Retrieved 2021 March 11.
- Word and number puzzles improve adult cognitive function. (2019, May 16). Alzheimer’s Society. Retrieved 2021 March 10.
- Video games show potential in improving key aspects of memory in older adults. (2020, September 24). National Institute on Aging. NIH. Retrieved 2021 March 10.
- Fissler, P., Kolassa, I. T., & Schrader, C. (2015). Educational games for brain health: revealing their unexplored potential through a neurocognitive approach. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 1056.
- Mediterranean diet may slow development of Alzheimer’s disease. (2018, May 15). NIH. Retrieved 2021 March 11.
- Corrada, M. M., Kawas, C. H., Hallfrisch, J., Muller, D., & Brookmeyer, R. (2005). Reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease with high folate intake: the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging. Alzheimer’s & dementia: the journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, 1(1), 11–18.
- Isabella C. Arellanes, et al., Brain delivery of supplemental docosahexaenoic acid (DHA): A randomized placebo-controlled clinical trial. EBioMedicine, Volume 59, 2020, 102883, ISSN 2352-3964
Dr. Brandon Colby MD is a US physician specializing in the personalized prevention of disease through the use of genomic technologies. He’s an expert in genetic testing, genetic analysis, and precision medicine. Dr. Colby is also the Founder of Sequencing.com and the author of Outsmart Your Genes.
Dr. Colby holds an MD from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, an MBA from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, and a degree in Genetics with Honors from the University of Michigan. He is an Affiliate Specialist of the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ACMG), an Associate of the American College of Preventive Medicine (ACPM), and a member of the National Society of Genetic Counselors (NSGC).