Alzheimer’s strikes fear in all of us. The thought of losing your mind as you grow older is terrifying and made worse by the fact that, before now, there appeared to be little we could do to slow down or avoid Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia.
This week, Mirror columnist Fiona Phillips, 51, talked openly about her experience of Alzheimer’s after losing first her mother Amy and, earlier this month, her father Neville to the disease.
She fears that, like her mother who was struck down in her late 50s, she too will start to develop symptoms in the next five years.
Having witnessed Alzheimer’s first hand she knows how sufferers are stripped of self respect, leaving them incapable of performing even the most basic daily tasks.
But according to Jean Carper, 79, an American medical journalist, there could be hope.
In her international best selling book, 100 Simple Things You Can Do To Prevent Alzheimer’s, a host of experts reveal scientifically-backed, easy tips about how to head off the disease, ranging from eating vinegar to surfing the net.
Jean compiled the book after discovering that she carries a gene known as ApoE4 which makes her exceptionally vulnerable to late-onset (after 60 years old) Alzheimer’s.
Determined to do everything she could to escape it, she found 100 simple tips which could help to cut the odds of Alzheimer’s, memory decline and other forms of dementia.
“Knowing I have inherited this tiny time bomb which may already be slowly deconstructing my brain cells has dramatically focused my attention on ways to neutralise this threat to my brain. I
“‘m doing my best to outlive it,” she says. “The disease’s long lead time gives us years of opportunity to make a difference.
“The state of your health in your middle age appears to foreshadow the health of your brain in your 70s and 80s.”
Although genes strongly influence the likelihood of Alzheimer’s, researchers also believe early, mid-life and late-life factors such as nutrition, education, diabetes and mental and physical activity play a big part in preventing its onset.
Following these tips, you could slash your chances of developing the disease…
1 Check out your ankle
Low blood flow in your foot is a clue to trouble in your brain and a simple test can reveal its cognitive state and your likelihood of stroke and dementia.
The theory is blood vessel health is similar throughout the body. The degree of clogged arteries and blood flow in the feet can suggest atherosclerosis in cerebral blood vessels.
Ask your doctor for an ankle-brachial index (ABI) test which involves an ultrasound device and a blood pressure cuff that compares blood pressure in your ankle with that in your arm.
To remedy any impairment of blood flow your GP may advise stepped-up exercise or a change in your diet or medication.
2 Eat anti-oxidant-rich foods
Certain foods infuse your brain with antioxidants that can slow memory decline and help prevent Alzheimer’s.
All fruit and vegetables are good but top of the list are black raspberries, elderberries, raisins and blueberries.
3 Beware of bad fats
The type of fat you eat changes your brain’s functioning for better or worse.
Stay away from saturated fats which strangle brain cells causing them to become inefficient.
Buy low fat or fat-free dairy products including milk, cheese and ice cream. Cut down on deep-fried foods
4 Grow a bigger brain
Your brain starts to shrink when you reach 30 or 40 so it takes longer to learn.
However scientists now believe you can increase the size of your brain through the act of learning.
Try studying, learning new things or broadening your circle of friends for stimulation.
5 Treat yourself to chocolate
Cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate, has sky-high concentrations of antioxidants called flavanols, which possess strong heart and brain protecting properties.
Drinking cocoa powder increases blood flow to the brain. Cocoa powder has twice as many flavanols as dark chocolate which has twice a many as milk chocolate. White chocolate has zero.
6 Know the oestrogen evidence
Sixty eight per cent of Alzheimer’s patients are women, possibly as midway through life they lose the protection of the hormone oestrogen which boosts memory.
Unless your GP says otherwise, start taking oestrogen immediately at the time of menopause – starting any later risks dementia and strokes.
7 Raise your good cholesterol
It’s well known that having high good-type HDL blood cholesterol protects you from heart disease. But it can also save your brain.
Researchers claim it blocks sticky stuff that destroys brain cells and acts as an anti-inflammatory to lessen brain damage.
Ways to ramp up good cholesterol include exercise, drinking moderate amounts of alcohol and losing weight.
8 Google something
Doing an internet search can stimulate ageing brains even more than reading a book.
And MRI scans show that savvy surfers have twice as many sparks of brain activity as novices.
Go online to search for information, things to buy or games to play. Although it’s not known how much it will benefit your brain, it’s better than passive, mind-numbing pursuits.
9 Know about the ApoE4 gene
One in four of you reading this has a specific genetic time bomb that makes you three to ten times more susceptible to developing late-onset Alzheimer’s. The gene is called apolipoprotein E4.
If you inherit a single variant of ApoE4 from one parent, your Alzheimer’s risk triples. If you inherit a double dose from both parents, your risk rises by ten times. Ask your doctor about a DNA test to reveal your ApoE4 genotype.
10 Say yes to coffee
Once considered the drink of the unhealthy, coffee is now emerging as a tonic for the ageing brain.
It is anti- inflammatory, helps block the ill effects of cholesterol in the brain and cuts the risks of stroke, depression and diabetes, all promoters of dementia.
It is also high in antioxidants and caffeine which stop neuronal death and lessen diabetes, high blood pressure and strokes that bring on dementia. For most people, a moderate daily intake of coffee, two to four cups, won’t hurt and may help.
11 Beware of being underweight
Unexplained weight loss after age 60 or so may be a sign of Alzheimer’s. A study showed that women with the disease started losing weight at least ten years before dementia was diagnosed.
Among women of equal weight, those who went on to develop dementia slowly became thinner over three decades and, when diagnosed, weighed an average 12lb less that women who were free of Alzheimer’s.
Talk to your doctor about any unexplained weight loss after 60.
12 Drink wine, preferably red
A daily glass of wine may help delay dementia. Research says that alcohol is an anti-inflammatory and raises good cholesterol which helps ward off dementia. High antioxidants in red wine give it additional anti-dementia clout.
Such antioxidants act as artery relaxants, dilating blood vessels and increasing blood flow which encourages cognitive functioning. White wine however has comparatively few antioxidants.
13 Know the early signs of Alzheimer’s
Memory problems are not the first clue. You may notice a decline in depth perception, for example you reach to pick up a glass of water and miss it.
Or you misjudge the distance in walking across a street. Doing a jigsaw puzzle or reading a map may also be confusing.
Losing your sense of smell can also be an early clue, as well as asking the same question repeatedly or misplacing belongings in odd places (like putting keys in the fridge).
Be aware of memory problems because the earlier the signs are spotted, the more successful lifestyle changes and medications are likely to be.
14 Make your diet Mediterranean
The Mediterranean diet, no matter where you live, can help save your brain from memory deterioration and dementia.
Studies consistently find that what the Greeks and Italians eat is truly brain food.
Following this diet – rich in green leafy vegetables, fish, fruits, nuts, legumes, olive oil and a little vino – can cut your chances of Alzheimer’s by nearly half.
Rather than depending on just one food or a few nutrients, it is a rich menu of many complex brain benefactors, including an array of antioxidants, which shield brain cells from oxidative damage.
15 Watch middle age obesity
Unfortunately, your brain cares if you are fat.
A study showed obese people had 8% less brain tissue and overweight people had 4% less brain tissue than normal weight people, which according to one scientist hugely increases the risk of Alzheimer’s.
Moreover, brain shrinkage occurred in areas of the brain targeted by Alzheimer’s, and which are critical for planning, long term memory, attention and executive functions, and control of movement.
Tackle signs of rising weight early, when you are young or middle aged.
Oddly, being obese after the age of 70 does not raise the risk of Alzheimer’s but that doesn’t mean you should neglect exercise as it is the best way of stimulating cognitive functioning and may delay the onset of Alzheimer’s at any age.
16 Get a good night’s sleep
A lack of sleep is toxic to brain cells. Sleep has surprising powers to protect your brain against memory loss and Alzheimer’s.
It is a wonder drug that helps manipulate levels of the dreaded brain toxin peptide beta-amyloid, a prime instigator of Alzheimer’s, which according to one scientist puts you at accelerated risk.
Research has also found that sleeping an average of five hours or less a night is linked to large increases in dangerous visceral abdominal fat, which can cause diabetes and obesity that can lead to Alzheimer’s.
Take naps and seek treatment for sleep disorders.
17 Have a big social circle
Studying the brain of a highly sociable 90-year-old woman who died from Alzheimer’s, researchers in Chicago found that having a large social network provided her with strong “cognitive reserve” that enabled her brain to not realise she had Alzheimer’s.
Why this happens is a mystery but interacting with friends and family seems to make the brain more efficient.
It finds alternative routes of communication to bypass broken connections left by Alzheimer’s. So see friends and family often and expand your social network.
The stronger the brain reserve you build through life, the more likely you are to stave off Alzheimer’s symptoms.
18 Learn to deal with stress
When you are under stress, your body pours out hormones called corticosteroids, which can save you in a crisis.
But persistent stress reactions triggered by everyday events like work frustration, traffic jams and financial worries can be dangerous.
Over time, it can destroy brain cells and suppress the growth of new ones, actually shrinking your brain.
Sudden traumatic events like the death of a loved one or a life-changing event like retirement can leave a hangover of severe psychological stress that precedes dementia.
Be aware that chronic stress can increase older people’s vulnerability to memory decline and dementia. Seek professional advice.
Antidepressants, counselling, relaxation techniques and other forms of therapy may head off stress-related memory loss if treated in the early stage.
19 Take care of your teeth
Bad gums may poison your brain. People with tooth and gum disease tend to score lower in memory and cognition tests, according to US dental researchers who found that infection responsible for gum disease gives off inflammatory byproducts that travel to areas of the brain involved in memory loss.
Consequently, brushing, flossing and preventing gum disease may help keep your gums and teeth healthy but also your memory sharper.
In another study older people with the most severe gingivitis – inflamed gums – were two to three times more likely to show signs of impaired memory and cognition than those with the least.
20 Get enough Vitamin B12
As you age, blood levels of vitamin B12 go down and the chance of Alzheimer’s goes up. Your ability to absorb it from foods diminishes in middle age, setting the stage for brain degeneration years later.
Researchers at Oxford University found that a brain running low on B12 actually shrinks and a shortage can lead to brain atrophy by ripping away, myelin, a fatty protective sheath around neurons.
It can also trigger inflammation, another destroyer of brain cells. Take 500 to 1000mcg of vitamin B12 daily after the age of 40.
If you or an older family member has unexplained memory loss, fatigue or signs of dementia, be sure to get tested for vitamin B12 deficiency by your GP.
21 Vinegar in everything
There is plenty of evidence that vinegar sinks risk factors that may lead to memory decline, namely high blood sugar, insulin resistance, diabetes and pre-diabetes and weight gain.
Researchers in Phoenix, Arizona, have noted in studies of humans and animals that the acidic stuff packs potent glucose-lowering effects.
Studies have also found it can curb appetite and food intake, helping prevent weight gain and obesity, which are associated with diabetes, accelerated dementia and memory loss.
Pour on the vinegar – add it to salad dressings, eat it by the spoonful, even mix it into a glass of drinking water. Any type of vinegar works.
22 Have your eyes checked
If you preserve good or excellent vision as you age, your chances of developing dementia drop by an astonishing 63%.
And if it’s poor, just visiting an optician for an eye test and possible treatment at least once in later life cuts your dementia odds by about the same amount.
Exactly how vision problems promote dementia is not clear but impaired vision makes it difficult to participate in mental and physical activities such as reading and exercising, as well as social activities, all believed to delay cognitive decline.
Be aware that your eyes reflect and influence how your brain is functioning, especially as you age.
Don’t tolerate poor vision as often it can be corrected.
23 Eat curry
Why does India have one of the world’s lowest rates of Alzheimer’s? One theory is curry.
A staple food in India, curry powder contains the yellow-orange spice turmeric, packed with curcumin, a component reported to stall memory decline.
One study showed elderly Indians who ate even modest amounts of curry did better in cognitive tests.
Curcumin works by blocking the build-up of Alzheimer’s-inducing amyloid plaques (deposits found in the brains of sufferers) then nibbles away at existing plaques to slow cognitive decline.
It is recommended to eat two or three curries a week, and make it a yellow curry. Otherwise, sprinkle the spices on your food.
24 Prevent and control diabetes
Having type 2 diabetes makes you more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s.
Studies show it may double or triple your risk and the earlier diabetes takes hold, the higher the odds of dementia. Some experts refer to Alzheimer’s as “diabetes of the brain”.
The two disorders have similar causes – obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high fat and high sugar diets, low physical activity as well as high blood sugar.
In short, diabetes can deliver a double whammy to the brain, destroying neurons and increasing inflammation.
Do everything possible to keep blood sugar levels low and stick to a low-saturated fat diet and regular exercise.
25 Drink more tea
Evidence suggests that tea stalls the cognitive loss that precedes Alzheimer’s and that the more tea you drink, the sharper your ageing memory is. Tea’s secret is no mystery.
The leaves are packed with compounds able to penetrate the blood-brain barrier and block neuronal damage.
One particular green tea antioxidant can block the toxicity of beta-amyloid, which kills brain cells. Make a point of drinking black and green tea.
Don’t add milk, it can reduce tea’s antioxidant activity by 25%