Jun 28, 2017 | Updated: 09:10 PM EDT

Want to Prevent Alzheimer's? Live Clean and Learn New Things

Jun 15, 2017 01:14 PM EDT

Brain concept
(Photo : Getty Images)

Alzheimer's disease is developed in 500,000 Americans every year. It kills more people in this country than prostate and breast cancer combined. Most of us have no way of knowing that we are at risk for the disease. There is no cure yet.

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What if there was something he could have done to prevent our minds from ever developing the disease? Scientists and experts now think that there are things we can do to keep our brains healthy and greatly reduce the chances of developing Alzheimer's. Also there are things we can do so that our brains, despite the onset of Alzheimer's, never experience the symptoms of the disease. 

"Alzheimer's disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. In most people with Alzheimer's, symptoms first appear in their mid-60s. Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia among older adults." according to the National Institute on Aging.

According to Lisa Genova, author of the book "Still Alice", there are things we can do in our 40's and later in our life that will help our minds become resistant to Alzheimer's disease. Genova's prescription for preventing Alzheimer's involves several factors. Not smoking, maintaining good cardio health and getting a sufficient amount of sleep. 

The reasons for Genova's prescription for prevention have to do with synapses. The brain has neurons that connect when we have thoughts, feelings or memories. These point at which these neurons connect is called synapse. When synapse occur, a small peptide called beta amyloid is released. This is usually cleared by microglia, which Genova calls "the janitors of the brain" because their job is to clear out beta amyloid and make sure that it does not develop into amyloid plaque. When amyloid plaque reaches a tipping point, our microglia cells become hyperactive and scientists think that they may start clearing out the synapses themselves. This leads to loss of memory, the early symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. According to Genova, many scientists believe that the key to prevention is to keep amyloid plaque from reaching a tipping point.

The genes we inherit are a factor, but for most of us, our DNA alone will not make us get Alzheimer's. Sleep may be one key to prevention. During deep sleep our bodies clear away metabolic waste that accumulated in our bodies while we were awake. "Deep sleep is like a power cleanse for the brain" according to Genova. Many scientists believe that poor sleep hygiene may be a predictor of Alzheimer's. High blood pressure, cardiovascular health, diabetes, obesity, smoking and high cholesterol have all been shown to increase our risk of developing Alzheimer's. 

This is all good advice if you are 35. What if you are already 65 and you haven't exactly led a clean life. You like high fat foods, you don't get enough sleep and you are a smoker who does not keep good cardiovascular health. There is one more thing you can do to prevent experiencing the symptoms of Alzheimer's. Learn new things. Learning new things, like learning to speak another language, reading a new book or meeting new friends produces more synapses. "Every time we learn something new we are creating and strengthening new neural connections" according to Genova. 

In what has come to be known as the "nun study", 675 nuns all over the age of 75 had their brains donated to science. After being studied while they were alive for 2 decades and given physicals and cognitive tests, their brains were studied after they died. What scientists found surprised them. Despite the presence of plaques and brain shrinkage, and what looked like Alzheimer's disease, none of the nuns showed signs of having Alzheimer's disease while they were alive. The reason, scientists think, is because these nuns had a high level of cognitive reserve. They had a large number of synapses. They kept learning new things later in life. This late life learning produced more synapses and even though they technically had Alzheimer's when they died, their brains never felt the symptoms because they had a high number of reserve synapses to offset the disease. 

There may be no way of actually preventing Alzheimer's, but if you keep learning new things late in life, your brain may never even know that you have the disease and you will be able to live symptom free. This is not a cure for the disease, but it is a way to prevent experiencing the symptoms of Alzheimer's.



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