Although no cure for Alzheimer’s has been discovered yet, a number of factors can help prevent the disease, and slow the onset of dementia in people who’ve been diagnosed with it. In addition to medicines like cholinesterase inhibitors and glutamate regulators, your doctor will probably tell you that a healthy diet, exercise and social interaction can all significantly improve your loved one’s quality of life — and that’s absolutely right.
Whether your loved one takes Alzheimer’s prescriptions or not, a holistic approach to care is essential for supporting their physical and mental health, and protecting their brain against cognitive decline. In fact, research shows that people who practice healthy lifestyles can often delay dementia symptoms for five years or more — and may continue to enjoy a fulfilling, active life well into their 80s, or even beyond.
Let’s take a closer look at the four most important non-medical therapies that contribute to a healthy holistic lifestyle for a person with Alzheimer’s.
Therapy #1: A diet rich in green veggies, fruits, nuts and fish
You may have heard that nutrients like vitamin E, protein and omega-3 fatty acids can protect against many Alzheimer’s symptoms. Well, that’s partially true. It’s important to note, though, that these nutrients are only proven to be beneficial when they come from real fruits, veggies, nuts and meat — not from vitamins or dietary supplements taken all on their own. (Spices like turmeric have also been getting a lot of media attention lately, but the jury’s still out on whether they really help, so we’re skipping them here.)
However, one particular dietary regimen shows consistent anti-Alzheimer’s power. That’s the MIND diet (short for “Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay”), which provides plenty of fresh fruit, green veggies, nuts, whole grains, and olive oil, along with fish and poultry a few times a week. This diet also emphasizes cutting down on red meat, butter, cheese, fried foods, sweets and alcohol. It’s a system that can be tricky to stick to — but the brain benefits speak for themselves.
Numerous studies have found that the MIND diet can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by up to 53 percent — and can even delay dementia for five years or more in people who already have the disease. It supports healthy glucose metabolism, reduces levels of beta-amyloid proteins that form harmful plaque deposits on brain cells, and even helps thicken the cerebral cortex — the wrinkly outer layer of the brain, which is critical for self-awareness and complex thought.
Therapy #2: At least 20 minutes of daily aerobic exercise
Exercise helps people with Alzheimer’s in a wide range of ways. It increases blood and oxygen flow to the brain, strengthens hand-eye coordination, stimulates the formation of new brain cells, raises the production of messenger chemicals like dopamine and glutamate, and can even increase the size of brain areas central to memory. As if that wasn’t enough, regular exercise also decreases anxiety and restlessness, and promotes restful sleep.
Just about any form of aerobic exercise will provide these benefits — so if your loved one isn’t into jogging or jumping jacks, try some alternative exercises like swimming, bicycling, dancing, gardening, playing ball games, or just taking a brisk walk around the block. What’s most important is to find some workouts your loved one actually enjoys, and that’ll keep their heart rate up for at least 20 minutes.
That’s because it takes 150 minutes of exercise per week (about 20 minutes every day) to get the benefits listed above. Research shows that people who exercise less than 150 minutes a week develop dementia at about the same rate as people who hardly exercise at all. Still, any amount of physical activity is better than none; so if you miss a day or two, don’t sweat it — just get your loved one back in action as soon as they’re ready.
Therapy #3: Social interaction with friends and loved ones
Many kinds of mental stimulation can help protect against cognitive decline. Research shows that people who regularly read, write letters, do puzzles and play card games can delay the onset of dementia by up to five years, even if they already have Alzheimer’s. Even so, one form of mental engagement is more impactful than all others — and that’s social interaction.
Studies show that meaningful conversations with friends and family can support healthy brain function, sharpen and preserve memories, and boost confidence and self-esteem. In particular, many people with Alzheimer’s love to reminisce about the past — and when they do, they often show immediate improvements in mood. Reminiscence therapy may even strengthen the verbal communication skills that tend to fade in the later stages of Alzheimer’s.
Still, it’s important to stay attentive to your loved one’s feelings and body language during social interactions. Crowded settings, fast-paced conversations and unfamiliar people can all be distressing for a person with Alzheimer’s, and may trigger withdrawal, aggressive outbursts, or even wandering behavior. Quiet chats about favorite memories are usually much safer.
Therapy #4: Six to eight hours of sleep per night
Getting healthy sleep can be a major challenge for individuals with Alzheimer’s. Many people with the disease suffer from frequent insomnia, for a variety of reasons — for example, they may nap a lot during the day, feel restless after sundown, and become easily frightened by nighttime noises in a dark house.
However, research shows that losing just a few hours of sleep per night can accelerate memory loss, decrease cognitive performance, and contribute to depression in people with Alzheimer’s disease. Those who get a solid six to eight hours, on the other hand, have a significantly lower risk of developing dementia and mood disorders; and they tend to stay healthy longer overall.
You can support healthy sleep patterns by making sure your loved one enjoys plenty of interesting activities during the day — and by helping them wind down in the evening with relaxing music, and maybe a favorite book. A nightlight in the bedroom can also work wonders for nighttime anxiety, and ease your loved one into dreamland.
When transitioning to a new dietary regimen, exercise program, social setting and/or sleep schedule, it helps to take things at a measured pace. Though it’s natural to want to help your loved one as quickly as possible, taking these changes one at a time will make them much more likely to stick — and minimize stress. Still, with a little patience, consistency and creative thinking, you’ll soon find ways to introduce holistic therapies into your daily routine, and support a healthier lifestyle for yourself and your loved one.