If Alzheimer's runs in your family, though, your risk might be on your mind well before your sixth or seventh decade.
There's no proven way of absolutely preventing Alzheimer's. But there are steps you can take—especially when you're younger—to help keep your brain sharp for years to come.
"Making healthy choices when you're younger is like investing in a 401K," says Allison B. Reiss, MD, an associate professor in the Departments of Medicine and Foundations of Medicine at NYU Grossman Long Island School of Medicine and a member of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America Medical, Scientific & Memory Screening Advisory Board. "The work you do now builds a reserve that will pay dividends later."
- Allison B. Reiss, MD, Associate professor in the Departments of Medicine and Foundations of Medicine at NYU Grossman Long Island School of Medicine.
- Hayley B. Kristinsson, PsyD, Neuropsychologist with UCI Health who specializes in memory disorders, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and neuropsychological testing.
- Nathaniel Chin, MD, Medical director of Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and UW Health geriatrician.
The ideal time to start that work is in your 40s. That's because the first protein of Alzheimer's disease, called an amyloid, can begin to develop in the brain around this time, per the National Library of Medicine. While the presence of this protein doesn't mean someone will definitely be diagnosed with Alzheimer's, it does mean their risk is higher, says Nathaniel Chin, MD, medical director of the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and a UW Health geriatrician.
"This tells me, as a memory care geriatric physician and scientist in the field, that reducing risk for Alzheimer’s disease—and all thinking changes—should start in someone's 40s," he says. "We have decades to reduce our risk, and it is never too late to start."
Below, learn seven healthy habits you can start in your 40s to support your brain health now and in the years to come.
1. Eat more MINDfully
While food alone can't prevent Alzheimer's, there have been promising studies on both the Mediterranean and DASH diets, which many experts now recommend combining into one eating approach called the MIND diet (that stands for Mediterranean-DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, in case you were wondering).
In a September 2015 study in Alzheimer's and Dementia, researchers found Alzheimer's rates were 53 percent lower among people who had the highest intake of foods on the MIND diet.
In other words, this research-backed way of eating may help manage your risk of developing Alzheimer's, says Hayley B. Kristinsson, PsyD, a UCI Health neuropsychologist who specializes in memory disorders, dementia, Alzheimer's disease, and neuropsychological testing.
In a nutshell, the diet encourages lots of fruits, veggies, whole grains, fish, and nuts while limiting red meat, cheese, and other sources of saturated or trans fats.
Here's how to follow the MIND diet, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health:
- At least 3 servings of whole grains a day (think: brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa, whole-wheat products)
- At least 1 serving of vegetables a day (other than green leafy veggies)
- At least 6 servings of leafy green vegetables a week
- At least 5 servings of nuts a week
- At least 4 servings of beans a week
- At least 2 servings of berries a week
- At least 2 servings of poultry a week
- At least 1 serving of fish a week
- Mainly use olive oil instead of other fats
In addition, avoid or limit the following:
- Pastries and sweets
- Red meat
- Cheese and fried foods
- Ultra-processed foods
"Making healthy choices when you're younger is like investing in a 401K. The work you do now builds a reserve that will pay dividends later." —Allison B. Reiss, MD, internal medicine physician
2. Move your body a little more
It might seem like your brain and body exist on separate planes, but getting enough exercise promotes overall health for both.
"People who are physically active in their 40s have a lower risk of developing mild cognitive impairment," says Dr. Kristinsson.
Indeed, research has linked regular physical activity to a slew of brain-boosting benefits. For example, a landmark February 2011 study in PNAS found that people who are more active have larger brain volumes in regions that are crucial for memory, such as the frontal lobes and hippocampus. (Alzheimer's is associated with brain atrophy, or reduced brain volume.)
Other studies have found that exercise is beneficial for memory, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and that people who are more physically fit do better on tests that measure attention, memory, and processing speed. A December 2020 study in Preventive Medicine even found that adults who are inactive are almost twice as likely to experience cognitive decline.
"Not only does exercise increase volume in some regions, it can also help your brain function better," Dr. Kristinsson says.
So, how much exercise should you aim for? The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (think: brisk walking, biking) or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardio (think: running, HIIT) each week, or a mix of both. Plus, everyone should do muscle-strengthening activities at least twice a week.
But even if you don't hit those numbers exactly, the most important thing is: "Don't be sedentary!" says Dr. Reiss. "Find activities you enjoy and try to do a mix of aerobic exercise, resistance training, and stretching, balance, and range-of-motion activities."
That can include anything from dance to swimming to exercise classes to Pilates, and experts stress that you'll have the most success if you can find something you love doing.
3. Stop skimping on sleep
You're probably tired of hearing this (pun intended), but you've gotta get more sleep.
Not getting enough shut-eye or frequently having your sleep disrupted can weaken your immune system, and it's not great for your brain health, either.
Research has found that people who regularly struggle with sleep (trouble falling asleep, poor quality sleep, or short sleep, for example) have increased risk of cognitive decline.
Sleep problems, especially in mid-life, can also up your risk for dementia, per an April 2021 study in Nature Communications that was partly supported by the NIA.
To improve the overall quality of your sleep, Dr. Kristinsson recommends clocking seven to eight hours of sleep a night and sticking to a regular sleep schedule as best you can (yes, even on the weekends).
If you struggle with sleep, mindfulness and relaxation strategies such as meditation or yoga might be able to help if you do them regularly. And cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI) can be be a good option to treat insomnia without medication, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Need more help? Reach out to a sleep specialist, Dr. Kristinsson says.
"We are innately social beings, and social neuroscience has shown us that social engagement can impact brain health." —Hayley B. Kristinsson, PsyD, neuropsychologist
4. Nurture your relationships
Your friends really are good for your brain, experts say.
"We are innately social beings, and social neuroscience has shown us that social engagement can impact brain health," says Dr. Kristinsson.
Not only does social engagement foster a sense of closeness and connectedness, she explains, but it may help prevent the type of cognitive decline that can happen when someone is more isolated: Loneliness is linked to higher rates of dementia as well as faster cognitive decline, per a 2022 paper in the Journal of Psychiatry and Brain Science.
"Social activity is also good for your mood," says Dr. Kristinsson. Research shows a connection between depression and poorer brain functioning, she says, adding that she often sees patients who have both depression and memory complaints.
In your 40s, you may well be juggling a demanding career with caring for kids and maybe your own parents, too. So it's understandable if socializing falls a bit by the wayside. But consider this your sign to revive "girl's night," call the friend you've been meaning to catch up with, volunteer at your church or library, or rally your people for a book club or bowling league.
5. Exercise your brain, too
You've likely seen advertisements for workbooks, apps, and other products that claim to offer "brain training" exercises. While research is mixed on whether these so-called brain games are effective, Dr. Kristinsson notes that cognitive exercise is "definitely important" for good brain health throughout your life — and you don't need to turn to expensive products to work these "muscles."
"The key appears to be stimulating your brain to work in ways that it is not accustomed to, such as learning a new language or learning to play an instrument," she says. "I often tell patients that the key is choosing an activity that you enjoy that is also mentally challenging, but not so challenging that it is discouraging."
So, if you've always wanted to learn to play guitar, or you want to brush up on the Italian you learned in high school, now's the perfect time.
6. Take good care of your heart
What's good for your heart is good for your brain.
"The brain and the heart work together," says Dr. Reiss. "You rely on your heart and blood vessels to provide oxygen and nutrients to your brain."
As a result, there's a lot of overlap between heart-healthy and brain-healthy recommendations. According to Dr. Chin and Dr. Reiss, you should aim to:
- Do your best to reduce stress
- Make sure your blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol are in healthy ranges
- Eat nutritious foods
- Have your medications reviewed on a regular basis with your doctor
- Avoid smoking
- Limit alcohol to one drink or less per day
7. Be wary of supplements
There are countless supplements on the market that claim to improve brain health and memory, or even lower your risk of developing Alzheimer's. It can be tempting to buy into these claims, but know that at this time, there is no silver bullet medicine or magic pill for the disease, Dr. Chin says.
"I would caution people [against] taking supplements or prescribed medications simply with the hope that they reduce Alzheimer's risk," he says.
Not only can supplements interfere with other medications you're taking, but most have not been studied and have little if any research to support their claims. Plus, vitamins and supplements aren't regulated by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) the same way the agency regulates drugs.
"A supplement may be called 'natural' but can still have powerful substances that have not met FDA standards," Dr. Kristinsson warns. "This can lead to adverse reactions when combined with prescription medications, so make sure to check with your doctor before starting anything new."
At the moment, Dr. Chin adds, there are clinical trials looking at medications that remove the first protein of Alzheimer's disease, but they're still under study. And while some people have legitimate vitamin deficiencies that could contribute to memory symptoms—such as B1, B6, B12, or D—there's no supplement currently known to reduce your risk of developing the disease.
If you think you might have a vitamin deficiency, ask your doctor if they recommend a supplement or a multivitamin that contains minerals, "which may be helpful in older adults," says Dr. Chin. But again, never take anything without your doctor's recommendation.
- Morris, Martha Clare et al. “MIND diet associated with reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s disease.” Alzheimer’s & dementia : the journal of the Alzheimer’s Association vol. 11,9 (2015): 1007-14. doi:10.1016/j.jalz.2014.11.009
- Erickson, Kirk I et al. “Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 108,7 (2011): 3017-22. doi:10.1073/pnas.1015950108
- Omura, John D et al. “Cross-sectional association between physical activity level and subjective cognitive decline among US adults aged ≥45 years, 2015.” Preventive medicine vol. 141 (2020): 106279. doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2020.106279
- Sabia, Séverine et al. “Association of sleep duration in middle and old age with incidence of dementia.” Nature communications vol. 12,1 2289. 20 Apr. 2021, doi:10.1038/s41467-021-22354-2
- Finley, Anna J, and Stacey M Schaefer. “Affective Neuroscience of Loneliness: Potential Mechanisms underlying the Association between Perceived Social Isolation, Health, and Well-Being.” Journal of psychiatry and brain science vol. 7,6 (2022): e220011. doi:10.20900/jpbs.20220011
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