There are several drugs on the market that can delay the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, but none that can prevent it. As the Nun Study shows, however, relatively simple changes in diet and lifestyle may help postpone the onset of dementia. Some of these suggestions--like getting a good education or wearing a bike helmet--make good sense in their own right. For others, you may want to consult your doctor--especially if you have a family history of Alzheimer's.
Head for Cover
Protect your head from injury. Trauma to the head and even a brief loss of consciousness can eat away at precious brain reserve. The association of strokes and Alzheimer's is even stronger. So wear a helmet when biking, buckle your seat belt in the car and reduce your risk of stroke by quitting smoking, exercising regularly and keeping your blood pressure down.
Stay in School
Statistically, the more education you get, the less likely you are to show signs of Alzheimer's. While it's not clear whether more time in school can actually do anything to prevent plaques and tangles from forming, there is substantial evidence that schooling postpones memory and orientation problems. Education may help the brain's nerve cells build up more connections, giving it a larger cushion or reserve from which to draw upon when the neural network begins to fade.
Like any organ, the brain needs constant attention. Keep exercising your mental muscle by learning a new skill, doing a crossword puzzle or, like the nuns, playing card games and tutoring schoolchildren.
One of the strongest findings of the Nun Study is the link between folic acid and mental health. Found in breads, cereals and leafy green vegetables, folic acid seems to protect the brain's central learning and reasoning regions from shrinkage. Most doctors recommend starting with at least the RDA of 400 micrograms a day, the amount found in most multivitamins.
On the other hand, the study found no evidence that such antioxidants as vitamin C or E slow Alzheimer's. But these vitamins have been shown in other studies to protect against cancer and other diseases, and many doctors recommend them for anyone concerned about Alzheimer's.
Close contact with family and friends can keep your spirits up and slow the onset of mental decline. Studies have shown that seniors who remain engaged with family or community groups take longer to show signs of Alzheimer's than those who spend their days alone. The sisters in the Nun Study meet daily for games and conversation.
Know Your Genes
If Alzheimer's runs in your family, consider getting yourself tested for the handful of genes that have been linked to the disease. Knowing your genetic susceptibility could get you started making changes in your diet or lifestyle early; the sooner you build up your brain reserve, the longer you may have before it withers away. Remember, however, that having an Alzheimer's gene does not necessarily mean you will get the disease.
--By Alice Park
Chat with Michael Lemonick Wednesday, 4 p.m. E.T. on AOL. Keyword: Time