What steps can you take to avoid dementia or Alzheimer’s?

That’s a great question and one that should be taken very seriously. Unfortunately, there are no readily available tests to determine if someone will develop dementia or Alzheimer’s. It is not until symptoms show up that any type of diagnosis can be made, and at that time there is very little to offer in regards to treatment or having a cure.

On the opposite side, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence demonstrating that most cases of Alzheimer’s disease are preventable through lifestyle. If you don’t want to be a victim of this dreadful disease, the time to take action is now. Waiting for symptoms to develop is like waiting until you’re thirsty to drill a well.

The most recent estimates report that 5.4 million people in the U.S. have Alzheimer’s disease. Also, some recent studies indicate the number of deaths from Alzheimer’s disease is grossly underestimated and that most likely over five hundred thousand people die each year from Alzheimer’s disease making it the third leading cause of death, right behind heart disease and cancer.

So what kind of lifestyle factors are most important? As with most chronic illnesses, at the top of the list are exercise and diet.

Exercise not only gets more blood and oxygen flowing to the brain, but also promotes brain cell growth. Evidence is showing that exercise does not have to be necessarily lengthy or strenuous. Walking, biking, gardening, tai chi, swimming and yoga for 30 minutes a day can make a significant impact on brain health.

In regards to diet, most of the research is highlighting the problem of too many carbohydrates (especially refined carbs) and not enough healthy fats. In fact, several years ago leading experts on Alzheimer’s disease nicknamed it Type 3 Diabetes. Diabetics have double the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Here are some examples of foods with healthy fats we should be consuming on a regular basis:

  • Free-range eggs
  • Extra virgin coconut oil
  • Grass-fed beef
  • Avocados
  • Raw nuts including almonds, pecans, walnuts and macadamias
  • Butter from grass-fed cows

Most of these foods contain saturated fat which is highly beneficial for brain health and does not increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. The fats that you do want to avoid not only for improving brain health, but overall health include:

  • Trans fats
  • Partially hydrogenated fats
  • Margarine
  • Butter-like spreads
  • Vegetable oils

A recent study from the Mayo Clinic published in The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease revealed that people who ate a high-carbohydrate diet had an 89 percent increased risk of dementia, while people who ate a high-fat diet reduced the chances of dementia by 44 percent. There is also evidence that high-carbohydrate diets and elevated blood sugar cause the memory area of your brain to shrink, along with your memory.

When people see these recommendations, one of the most common concerns they share is “How will this affect my cholesterol?” 25 percent of the cholesterol in your body is in your brain. Communication between brain cells is highly dependent on cholesterol. In fact, evidence supports a direct link with cholesterol and brain function. Lower levels of cholesterol lead to poorer cognitive function and memory loss and is a potential side effect of cholesterol-lowering drugs.

What do we need to look out for when it comes to reducing our carbohydrate intake? There are the obvious—sodas, cake, cookies and crackers. There are also many foods that fly under the radar labeled as no-fat and low-fat. Many experts also agree we eat too many grains, which are converted into sugar. Fruit juices, flavored yogurts and “healthy” breakfast cereals can also tip the sugar scales. As a rule of thumb, I recommend limiting sugar intake to 25 grams/day if there is any chronic illness present and 50 grams/day for everyone else.

Other nutritional strategies for promoting brain health include foods and spices that are rich in antioxidants such as:

  • dark colored vegetables such as broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, spinach, eggplant, and beets
  • turmeric
  • green tea
  • dark chocolate
  • red wine

There is a strong connection with low Vitamin D levels and impaired cognitive function. Most experts recommend your blood levels should be between 50-100 ng/ml.

Your gut is often times referred to as your second brain. There is a strong connection with gut health and brain health. Regularly consuming non-pasteurized fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut and kefir is a great way to promote a healthy gut flora. If this is not practical, using a high-quality probiotic supplement is recommended.

The lifestyle choices you make can have a dramatic impact on your brain health and the likelihood of being a victim of these serious brain diseases. Take care of your brain and it will take care of you.