When investigating Alzheimer’s treatment for a loved one, it can be tricky to sort scientific facts from wishful thinking. You might’ve heard, for example, that the disease always follows the same predetermined pattern — or that once it’s taken root, there’s no real way to slow down the damage it causes.
The truth, however, is that every case of Alzheimer’s is unique. The disease’s rate of progress depends not only on genetics, but also on a person’s physical fitness, mental health, dietary choices, and level of engagement with the world around them. In fact, while some people with Alzheimer’s experience cognitive decline within the first few months, others can continue to lead rich, fulfilling lives for years after their initial diagnosis.
Let’s take a closer look at how diet, exercise and mental stimulation can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s, and noticeably improve your loved one’s quality of life.
A diet rich in fruits, veggies and fish can delay cognitive decline by five years.
The best time to start a healthy diet is before an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. By the time the disease is diagnosed, it’s often well into the second or third stage, when dietary changes may not make as much of a positive impact. The good news, though, is that a Mediterranean-style diet can delay cognitive decline in a person who’s been following it for a few years — and also dramatically reduces that person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s in the first place.
In particular, people who follow the MIND diet (short for “Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay”) have a 53 percent lower rate of Alzheimer’s — and even those who do get the disease may not experience cognitive decline for five years or more after their diagnosis. So what’s this marvelous MIND diet? Lots of green vegetables, berries, whole grains and nuts; plus a bit of fish, poultry and olive oil — but little or no red meat, cheese, butter, sweets, fried food or alcohol. Click here for the full breakdown.
Scientists are still investigating how, exactly, the MIND diet protects against Alzheimer’s symptoms. Several studies suggest that the omega-3 fatty acids in fish may be the key factor, while others have found that people who follow the diet have lower levels of the beta-amyloid proteins that form harmful plaque deposits on brain cells. One study even reports that people who follow a Mediterranean diet develop a thicker cerebral cortex — the most advanced part of the brain, which is crucial for complex thinking.
But no matter what the reasons turn out to be, the evidence is conclusive: a diet rich in green veggies and fish, and low in red meat, salt and sugar, has been proven to delay cognitive decline in people who stick to it for four or more years. However, it’s important to note that these benefits only come from eating whole foods — not from taking vitamins. Despite the widespread popularity of anti-Alzheimer’s supplements, scientists have found no clear evidence that these products work.
Exercise also delays cognitive decline, even in people who already have Alzheimer’s disease.
A daily workout provides a wide range of benefits, especially as we grow older. It keeps the heart and lungs healthy, strengthens muscles and bones, improves digestion and metabolism, triggers the release of “happy chemicals” like endorphins — and, according to the latest research, can also delay cognitive decline.
In a recent study of 372 people with Alzheimer’s, those who performed at least 150 minutes of exercise per week (about 20 minutes every day) consistently showed stronger mental performance than those who exercised less — even if they only started this level of exercise after they’d been diagnosed with the disease. That means even if you or your loved one has already received an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, you can still influence the timing of cognitive decline by starting an exercise regimen today.
What kind of exercise is best for delaying Alzheimer? Aerobic exercises like running, jogging, power-walking and swimming are ideal. Bicycling, bowling and even gardening can all be aerobic exercises, as long as they’re performed briskly enough to keep the heart rate up. Strength and balance exercises, such as yoga and weight training, can also be helpful. What’s most important is to find an exercise — or, better yet, a variety of exercises — that your loved one enjoys, and can practice on a daily basis without putting undue stress on their body.
Exercise protects the brain from Alzheimer’s in several important ways. It’s been shown to stimulate the formation of new brain cells, as well as new synapses (connections between cells). It also increases the size of the hippocampus, a brain area crucial for memory — and supports healthy levels of several “messenger chemicals” that play central roles in cognitive function. What’s more, exercise creates an overall sense of optimism and well-being, which can significantly reduce the risk of severe dementia.
An active mental life can delay dementia and cognitive decline by up to five years.
Fulfilling friendships, interesting hobbies and new experiences all help keep the mind young and agile at any age. People who stay fit and healthy into their 90s (and beyond) agree that one secret to success is to keep learning new skills throughout your entire life. What’s more, research shows it’s never too late to reap the benefits of an active mind — which can delay the onset of dementia by up to five years in people with Alzheimer’s.
How can you help your loved one keep their mind active? Playing card and board games, solving puzzles (crossword or otherwise), writing letters, and even reading a book can all provide impressive brain benefits. In one study of 1,978 people aged 80 and older, those who frequently participated in these activities developed dementia an average of five years later than those with less stimulating mental lives. It’s possible that the difference could be even more dramatic among people in their 70s or younger.
This is all excellent news for people with Alzheimer’s — and their loved ones — because it means a person doesn’t have to do much to delay the disease’s most severe symptoms by several years. The simple combination of a Mediterranean diet, daily aerobic exercise, and some fun games and puzzles can serve as powerful protection against cognitive decline and dementia — and give you many more meaningful moments with your loved one in the months and years ahead.