While we do not yet have a cure for Alzheimer's, there are some things you can do to reduce your risk for the disease.
Recent research suggests that a combination of physical activity and the "Mediterranean diet" might delay the onset of Alzheimer's by as much as seven years, while also providing other health benefits.
The benefit of physical activity in maintaining brain health has long been acknowledged. Essentially, everything that is good for your heart — like cardiovascular exercise — is good for your brain.
However, some people are put off of exercise because they think they won't be able to exercise hard enough or long enough to make a difference. In a study of 1,880 people conducted at Columbia University, researchers found that as little as 20 minutes daily of moderate walking or similar exercise contributed to brain health.
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"Moderate" exercise is defined as the level at which you can hold a conversation, but cannot sing a song. If you aren't able to talk while exercising, you might need to slow down a bit. However, if you have enough breath to sing out loud, then you need to speed up to get the maximum benefit.
The Mediterranean diet is a helpful adjunct to exercise. Essentially, the Mediterranean diet is a way of eating that is high in fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains and fish, but low in meat and dairy products. It might also include wine, which contains the anti-aging compound resveratrol. Eating this way not only encourages brain health but can promote heart health, lower cholesterol, fend off diabetes and decrease stroke risk. So, even if you aren't concerned about Alzheimer's, the diet is a sensible way to eat.
The Columbia study scored how well people adhered to the Mediterranean diet and assigned a range to their physical activity levels. Among those who eventually developed Alzheimer's, those who both scored high in the Mediterranean diet category and had a high degree of physical activity developed the condition an average of seven years later than those who did not eat a Mediterranean diet or exercise often.
This finding is significant because it means that if a person would otherwise develop Alzheimer's at a certain age — say, 85 — making lifestyle changes could push the disease back as much as seven years — say, to age 92. That means more years with a good quality of life.
Of course, healthy diet and exercise are only part of the picture in preventing Alzheimer's. We are still working to understand exactly what causes Alzheimer's, and even a person who eats a healthy diet and exercises may develop the disease. Because of this, it's important to remember that those with Alzheimer's did not cause their condition.
Still, until we can devise a method of preventing this disease, there's no harm in stacking the odds in your favor through the Mediterranean diet and exercise.