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Avoiding Alzheimer’s

New research offers five specific tips.

One of the biggest changes in adult development over the past 50 years is that it has been extended farther and farther. All over the world, life expectancies are rising as medical interventions become more effective at defeating diseases and prolonging life. Right now, life expectancy at age 65 is about 22 more years in most developed countries—longer than ever before. It’s rising in developing countries as well.

Dreamstime, used with permission.
As the French say, santé!
Source: Dreamstime, used with permission.

Great news, right? Sure, it is—if a longer life is accompanied by good health. Ah, there’s the rub. It seems fair to say that almost everyone would like to live to a healthy old age, but almost no one would take those extra years if they are spent sinking into the fog of Alzheimer’s Disease and thus losing a sense of identity and becoming a burden on those we love most.

For all of us, the specter of Alzheimer’s hangs over our prospects for living a long life. It’s a specter for societies, too, as the rising number of older adults worldwide will require enormous resources if many of them are afflicted with Alzheimer’s in their final years.

In both the public and the private sectors, billions of dollars have been spent over many years trying to crack the Alzheimer’s puzzle and develop medications to prevent or cure it. So far, however, this research has come up empty, despite the strenuous efforts of numerous brilliant and dedicated researchers worldwide.

Alas, there’s no pill we can take for Alzheimer’s. Nevertheless, researchers have learned a great deal about the lifestyle factors that contribute to risk or prevention. Now, new research provides important tips about what we can do to reduce our risk of the disease.

Five studies presented last week at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference showed converging evidence on Alzheimer's prevention. The new tips mainly involve diet and exercise—but wait, don’t close this window because you’ve heard this story before, way too many times. The tips identified in this research are a lot more specific than previous studies have been. Here are the new "Big Five" of Alzheimer’s prevention:

  1. Exercise 150 minutes per week. Any kind of exercise will do, from gardening to swimming to tennis, but it has to be at least 150 minutes a week in order to have the greatest benefit. Think of it as 30 minutes a day, five days a week, if that will make it seem more attainable.
  2. Eat a “high-quality” diet. Here, that’s defined as eating mainly vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, seafood, and poultry—and NOT eating red meat, butter, cheese, pastries, or fried foods, or at least limiting them to rare indulgences.
  3. Engage in mentally stimulating activities at least two times a week. As with exercise, what qualifies here can be diverse—from reading the newspaper to playing chess to working in a cognitively challenging job.
  4. Don’t drink more than one glass of beer or wine per day. Sorry.
  5. Don’t smoke! Hopefully, everyone knows this one by now.

In one of the studies, people who engaged in four or five of these Big Five tips had a whopping 60 percent reduction in their Alzheimer’s risk compared to people who adhered to none or only one of them. The results were the same for women as for men, and for black people as well as white people.

One caveat is that four of the five studies took place in the U.S., and the other in the U.K., so the results may not apply quite the same way in a different cultural context. I hope scientists will soon reveal how the French manage to enjoy their red wine (one glass at dinner is just warming up), steaks, and buttery pastries, yet have the second-longest life expectancy in the world (after the Japanese).

Now that you know about the Big Five, it would be wise to practice as many of them as you can. But each of us can find ways to adapt them to our own needs and preferences. Personally, I have no intention of giving up butter, cheese, or pastries, and there will be quite a few evenings where I choose the French way for my red wine consumption rather than adhering strictly to the Big Five. There are times where prudence has to be sacrificed to joie de vivre. I figure if you can achieve four out of five most of the time, you're doing pretty well.

LinkedIn Image Credit: Tom Wang/Shutterstock

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