Diet and Exercise Influence Alzheimer's Disease Risk


By: , SparkPeople Blogger
  :  15 comments   :  15,909 Views

Last summer I shared about my grandmother and provided information regarding an opportunity to participate in The Alzheimer's Disease Neuroimaging Initiative Grand Opportunity (ADNI-GO) Study. Because of that blog, we received an interview opportunity with Dr. Michael Rafii, MD, PhD to learn more about groundbreaking Alzheimer’s disease (AD) research.

Dr. Michael Rafii, MD, PhD, is co-director of the Memory Disorders Clinic at UCSD Perlman Ambulatory Care Center in La Jolla, California and Assistant Professor of Neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego. He is also the Associate Medical Core Director of the Alzheimer's Disease Cooperative Study (ADCS) specializing in cognitive disorders, including dementias such as Alzheimer's Disease. We focused our questions on what we care most about – healthy eating and exercise. We think you will find his responses very applicable especially if you or someone you love may be at increased risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

dailySpark: There has been some research suggesting that caffeine could be beneficial for reducing protein levels linked to Alzheimer's disease. Should people with a family history of Alzheimer's follow different caffeine intake recommendations?

Dr. Rafii: There have been many headlines about caffeine and Alzheimer's disease. Many of those headlines suggested that coffee might actually cure Alzheimer's disease. That conclusion is more than a bit premature and will be difficult to reconcile with the vast number of heavy coffee drinkers progressing through advanced stages of the disease.

One of the studies was conducted at the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center (ADRC) in Tampa, Florida with a study published last year in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease. The study included 55 mice genetically altered to develop memory problems mimicking Alzheimer's disease as they aged. After behavioral tests confirmed the mice were exhibiting signs of memory impairment at age 18 to 19 months – about age 70 in human years – the researchers gave half the mice caffeine in their drinking water. The other half got plain water. The Alzheimer's mice received the equivalent of five 8-oz. cups of regular coffee a day. That's the same amount of caffeine – 500 milligrams. At the end of the two-month study, the caffeinated mice performed much better on tests measuring their memory and thinking skills. In fact, their memories were identical to normal aged mice without dementia. The Alzheimer's mice drinking plain water continued to do poorly on the tests.

In addition, the brains of the caffeinated mice showed nearly a 50-percent reduction in levels of beta amyloid, the substance forming the plaques that are a hallmark of Alzheimer's disease. Other experiments by the same investigators indicate that caffeine appears to restore memory by reducing both enzymes needed to produce beta amyloid. The researchers also suggest that caffeine suppresses inflammatory changes in the brain that lead to an overabundance of beta amyloid.

While some correlation between caffeine and improved cognition has been shown in other studies as well, there are still some major issues, namely why do long time coffee drinkers still develop Alzheimer’s Disease. Certainly if a person has been drinking coffee for a long time and enjoys it, they can continue drinking it, but they should not assume that their risk of developing AD is being reduced because of it. Nor should someone with AD assume that by starting to drink coffee regularly, they will somehow treat their AD symptoms.

dailySpark: Is there a link between heart disease and diabetes and the development of Alzheimer's disease?

Dr. Rafii: The risk of developing Alzheimer's Disease or Vascular dementia appears to increase as a result of many conditions that damage the heart or blood vessels. These include high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and high cholesterol. Some autopsy studies show that as many as 80 percent of individuals with Alzheimer's disease also have cardiovascular disease.

A longstanding question is why some people develop hallmark Alzheimer plaques and tangles but do not develop the symptoms of Alzheimer's. Vascular disease may help researchers eventually find an answer. Autopsy studies suggest that plaques and tangles may be present in the brain without causing symptoms of cognitive decline unless the brain also shows evidence of vascular disease. Many experts believe that controlling cardiovascular risk factors may be the most cost-effective and helpful approach to protecting brain health.

dailySpark: Are there specific diet and exercise recommendations that would help prevent the development of Alzheimer's disease?

Dr. Rafii: Regular physical exercise may be a beneficial strategy to lower the risk of Alzheimer's Disease and vascular dementia. Some evidence suggests exercise may directly benefit brain cells by increasing blood and oxygen flow. Even stronger evidence suggests exercise may protect brain health through its proven benefits to the cardiovascular system. Because of the known cardiovascular benefits, a medically approved exercise program is a valuable part of any overall wellness plan.

Like exercise, diet may have its greatest impact on brain health through its effect on heart health. The best current evidence suggests that heart-healthy eating patterns, such as the Mediterranean diet, also may help protect the brain. A Mediterranean diet includes relatively little red meat and emphasizes whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fish and shellfish, and nuts, olive oil and other healthy fats.

dailySpark: Is there a way to prevent the development of Alzheimer's disease?

Dr. Rafii: It's a question that continues to intrigue researchers and fuel new investigations. There are no clear cut answers yet — partially due to the need for more large-scale studies — but promising research is under way. A number of studies indicate that maintaining strong social connections and keeping mentally active as we age might lower the risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer's. Experts are not certain about the reason for this association. It may be due to direct mechanisms through which social and mental stimulation protect the brain. Certainly a heart healthy diet and exercise are also thought to be beneficial.

The Bottom Line

The latest Alzheimer's Disease research suggests there are things you can do to reduce your risks of AD.

  • If you drink coffee and other caffeinated beverages and enjoy them, continue drinking them in moderation. However, do not consume caffeine to reduce risks of developing or treating AD symptoms.

  • Controlling cardiovascular risk factors may be the most cost-effective and helpful approach to protecting brain health.

  • Regular physical exercise provides increased blood and oxygen flow to brain cells while improving cardiovascular health. The benefits of regular exercise, and the negative consequences of not exercising, are probably most notable between ages 50 and 70 than at any other time in your life. Following some simple rules can help make sure you stay safe and use your exercise time effectively to benefit cardiovascular health and perhaps lower the risk of Alzheimer's Disease and vascular dementia.

  • Following a Mediterranean style eating plan may help protect the brain by focusing on small amounts of red meat and emphasizes whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fish and shellfish, nuts, olive oil and other healthy fats.
As of today, there is no clear-cut way to prevent Alzheimer's Disease. However, studies show that strong social connections, mental stimulation and a heart healthy eating and exercise plan can have a positive influence.

Are your daily habits helping to make a positive difference in your risk for Alzheimer's disease? What are some ways busy people can stay socially connected and mentally stimulated on a daily basis?

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  • 15
    Very informative! Thank you for reminding us of the need to eat and live healthy! - 10/11/2010   3:48:38 PM
    It worries me that some readers of this blog will not see that NONE of the above things are really "protectors" against AD. Like many others who've posted on here, my mother was very active (walked miles every day), ate healthily, and drank a modicum of coffee every day. If this was really more than a balanced, healthy way to live life, so fewer people would be stricken with this diesease.

    The studies are intereting, but these are only a few of the studies that are out there. Living a healthy, balanced life is always beneficial, and it can *possibly* help slow down the effects of dementia if one unfortunately gets it, but please don't take these studies as law. Please don't rely on this as real "progress". This is simply a good way to live life.

    Sorry for sounding like a downer, but I don't want anyone on here thinking that just because they do as recommended one of the benefits would necessarily be not getting AD. - 10/9/2010   11:57:12 AM
  • 13
    How I wish "they" could find a cure for this horrible disease that robs you of your mind. I've seen my two mothers in law, suffer from it, and my grandmother does suffer from it now, as does one friend of mine. It is heartbreaking, and so hard on everyone involved. We are coming along, but really need much more study done. - 10/8/2010   7:01:59 PM
  • PNELSON8867
    I still think Alzheimers research has a VERY long way to go. My grandmother, her sister and her brother all suffered from Alzheimers. They were all very fit and active, none had any vascular disease, none had diabetes, none were even slightly overweight! They all drank coffee their entire lives, all ate the "mediterranean diet" for decades before it became 'chic' or even labeled as such, and my grandmother in particular walked MILES every single day. (she did not have a drivers license and so walked EVERYWHERE).

    So there is more to the Alzeimers picture than just diet, exercise and mental connections. Obviously, GENETICS, much more than anything else, is the cause of Alzheimers and no amount of diet or exercise is going to change your genetics.

    My entire family feels doomed to suffer the same fate as my grandmother and her siblings and all have purchased long term care insurance since the research does not seem promising for those of us with such a strong genetic tie to this horrible disease.

    I think the sooner the researchers figure out how to alter your genes, the sooner there will be a preventative treatment and a cure for it. - 10/8/2010   1:28:42 PM
  • 11
    I can vouch for the fact that exercise is an important factor in AD. I had 3 cousins develop the disease right about the time doctors started naming it Alzeihmer's Disease - siblings. The one who was most active developed the symptoms only after breaking her hip in a fall. The downhill spiral was awful. She went from a vivacious woman doing ballroom dancing to a invalid in a nursing home within months. Watching those siblings deteriorate was awful. - 10/8/2010   12:15:50 PM
  • 10
    This is good information for a few of my family members and friends whose parents and other relatives have this disease. Thanks again SparkPeople - 10/8/2010   10:58:09 AM
  • 9
    Wow - good information. Thanks for sharing! - 10/8/2010   9:59:30 AM
  • 8
    Alzheimer's is a terrible disease. My father was active, even did volunteer work at 85! He went to a wellness center 3 times a week to work out on the treadmill and walked 1-3 miles daily in the neighborhood. He watched his diet and never smoked or drank---and has been in an Alzheimer care unit for 3 years now. He'll be 89 on Christmas Day and doesn't even know his daughters. He did all the right things and still deteriorated rapidly. We DO need to do all the things we can to remain as healthy as possible but there just isn't a guarantee right now that what we do will keep us from getting it. It's such a sad thing, but we need to keep looking for a cure. Thanks for all the information. - 10/8/2010   6:53:48 AM
  • 7
    Jack LaLanne, the GodFather of Fitness is 95 and he shows no signs of alzheimer's or dementia. He still works out 2 hours every day and says he hates to exercise, but he loves the benefits. To be as active and healthy at 95 as he is certainly speaks for itself. - 10/8/2010   12:32:13 AM
  • 6
    Thank you so much for this informative blog! I will be going for some cognitive tests in a couple weeks and this is the kind of information I'm looking for as far as long term brain health is concerned. I'm glad to see that since I started using Sparkpeople, after my heart attack, I've been doing exactly what I need to be doing to protect my brain health. My only regret is that I didn't start years earlier! - 10/7/2010   5:13:41 PM
  • 5
    My mother, age 84, is moving into a residential facility next week. She is VERY VERY WELL cognitively: and has certainly followed a lot of the recommendations mentioned. Something I would share: because she had worked in offices for her whole life, we felt that she could make the transition from 'typewriter' to 'computer' quite easily. YES! One of her big issues about moving to 'the home'----"How soon will I have my internet up and running again?" Another example of 'social connection' -- for the modern age. - 10/7/2010   4:33:58 PM
  • 4
    What a nice blog. Be safe - 10/7/2010   4:22:35 PM
  • 3
    As the child of a parent with dementia I can only say we have certainly come a long way with our knowledge but scientific research and public awareness needs to be constantly address - 10/7/2010   4:10:14 PM
  • 2
    Thank you for the article. I would love to see more articles related to Alzheimer's. - 10/7/2010   1:20:34 PM
  • 1
    Thank you for that informative blog. Considering how devastating dementia can be to the victim and his/her family; it's hard to understand why people would not take such simple precautions and preventive measures to safeguard their brains.

    Thank you again. - 10/7/2010   1:08:00 PM

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