Best Ways for Women to Reduce Risk for Alzheimer's Disease
Alzheimer's disease impacts women disproportionately, as both patients and caregivers. Of the 6.5 million Americans currently diagnosed with the disease, almost two-thirds of them are women – a sobering 4.3 million women. Scientists and doctors still do not fully understand why this disease, which is the most common type of dementia, is especially bad for women. Some of this disparity may be explained by women's longer lifespan than men, losing estrogen at menopause, greater brain effects of conditions like diabetes, and increased impact of genetic risks. Differences in social and lifestyle risks, such as higher rates of depression, lower rates of exercise, and greater impact of social isolation may also play a role. While the list of risks for women is long, there are things women can do proactively to reduce risk. Science suggests that up to 40% of Alzheimer's disease cases could be prevented through healthy lifestyle modifications such as diet and exercise. As Director of the WAM Prevention Center at Cleveland Clinic, I have created a comprehensive and personalized program to help women reduce risks that are under their control. Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.
Who is at Risk of Alzheimer's?
Alzheimer's disease is a brain disorder that cannot be stopped or reversed. The disease severely affects memory, thinking, learnin, and organizing skills and eventually affects a person's ability to carry out simple daily activities. Alzheimer's disease is not a normal part of the aging process.
Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia (accounting for 60 percent to 80 percent of cases) and is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. We know that age is the biggest risk factor for developing the disease and anyone who plans to live over the age of 65 is at risk. Other risk factors include some genes, high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, and not being physically active. In addition to women being at greater risk, Black women are twice as likely, and Non-White Hispanic women are 1.5 times as likely to get Alzheimer's compared to White women. Read on to learn the best ways to reduce the risk of the disease.
People who exercise regularly have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. Exercise improves blood flow and memory, and it stimulates chemical changes in the brain that enhance memory and mood, and reduce stress. Doctors recommend 150 minutes a week of moderately intensive aerobic exercise such as running, jogging, cycling or brisk walking. If you are at risk for Alzheimer's disease and healthy, more intensive exercise routines and well-rounded movement that includes resistance training and flexibility practice may provide additional benefit.
Control Medical Risks
Diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure are risk factors for Alzheimer's disease. It's important to keep up with routine medical appointments and follow doctors' recommendations about diet and exercise, and to be consistent with taking medication if prescribed. In addition, if these medical risks run in the family, it can be especially important to live a healthy lifestyle that can reduce your odds of following in your family members' footsteps.
Our brains remain busy while we sleep – doing repairs, boosting the immune system and creating long-term memories. During deep sleep, excess amyloid protein- the protein associated with the formation of plaques in Alzheimer's disease- is cleared from the brain. More evidence is mounting that poor quality sleep is linked to a decline in memory and thinking abilities and leads to a higher risk of Alzheimer's. Eight hours a night is recommended for adults, but it's not just the quantity of sleep you get, it's the quality. To ensure you are getting a quality night's sleep implement a sleep routine:
- Go to bed and wake up at the same time every night – even on the weekends
- Exercise regularly but do not do it within three hours before bed
- Avoid caffeine late in the day
- Don't eat a large meal before bed and remember, alcohol can disrupt sleep
Whether working, managing a household, or retired, it is important for women to continue to learn and have opportunities for cognitive challenge. Learning and challenge can come in many forms—from taking classes or learning to play an instrument, to debating with friends or doing challenging puzzles. The key is consistency and finding activities that are difficult enough that you are actively working, but not so difficult that you feel defeated.
Stay Socially Connected
A rich social network provides sources of support, reduces stress, combats depression and enhances intellectual stimulation. Studies have shown that those with the most social interaction within their community experience the slowest rate of memory decline. Diet may also impact risk for Alzheimer's disease. Nutrition that emphasizes whole foods, healthy fats, and green leafy vegetables, and decreases foods that are inflammatory and processed has been shown to improve several health conditions and my also reduce risk for dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
Don't Feel Guilty
Women—especially those in the "sandwich generation" caring for parents and children at the same time—often wind up low on their own priority lists. Part of our center's mission is to help women find ways to set their health as a top priority without guilt, and know that doing so can change their lives. And to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.
Jessica Caldwell, PhD, is the Director of The Women's Alzheimer's Movement Prevention Center at Cleveland Clinic