A Crash Course in Alzheimer’s Disease




Your grandparents or parents might have it, but one day, will you? Understanding Alzheimer’s disease, how it develops, and most importantly, how you can prevent it is essential for living healthy into old age.


What is Alzheimer’s Disease?


Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia, a general term for a condition involving the loss of memory and cognitive abilities. About 60% to 80% of dementia cases are considered Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. More than 5 million people have Alzheimer’s and it’s the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. –more than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined.


Alzheimer’s results from a network of protein fragments called plaques and tangles that spreads throughout the brain and is believed to disrupt communication between nerve cells and prevent normal cell processes from taking place. 


Most people who have Alzheimer’s are age 65 and older, but genetics and lifestyle also play a strong role in Alzheimer’s development. While researchers have discovered genes that directly cause Alzheimer’s, 99% of Alzheimer’s cases evolve from risk genes that increase the likelihood you’ll develop a disease but do not guarantee it.


In other words, there are things you can do to reduce the odds that you’ll develop Alzheimer’s.


Alzheimer’s Risk Factors and Prevention


Literally protecting your brain from impact and other serious injury may reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s in the future. Research shows there may be a strong link between head injuries and Alzheimer’s, especially if it happens more than once or you lose consciousness. You can prevent head trauma by wearing a helmet when you bike, ski, or play impact sports and by always wearing your seat belt.


One of the most important ways you can prevent Alzheimer’s is by improving or maintaining your cardiovascular health, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Like any other organ in the body, the brain is fed by blood vessels, and if blood flow is disrupted or more toxic particles reach the brain, brain health deteriorates. Thus it’s not surprising that most of the Alzheimer’s Association’s recommendations for brain health are similar to those for heart health: keep tabs on your apoB LDL cholesterol, and manage your risk factors for developing high blood pressure and strokes. There’s ample research that suggests Alzheimer’s disease is associated with insulin resistance and insulin-signaling abnormalities that are also the hallmarks of diabetes, so managing diabetes risk factors is important as well.


In his book Grain Brain, neurologist Dr. Perlmutter posits brain diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s result from inflammation and protein glycation caused in part by excess grain and carbohydrate consumption. On the other hand, eating more fat – particularly omega-3 fats – reducing carbohydrate and sugar intake, and including probiotic and prebiotic foods like sauerkraut, yogurt, garlic, and asparagus are some dietary ways to help avoid getting Alzheimer’s. You can see this way of eating in action in this sample one-week, grain-free meal plan.


Additionally, regular exercise (even if it’s just 15-20 minutes) stimulates important hormones that help keep your brain (and other parts of your body) healthy. Whether you take a walk, go for a swim, or do strength training is up to you, but find ways to get physical activity into your day.


Costs of Dementia and Alzheimer’s


Since there’s no cure for dementia or Alzheimer’s, both conditions are unfortunately ones that require continuous special care and thus significant long-term expenses. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found yearly per-person dementia costs to be between $41,689 and $56,290. This exceptional figure should not only inspire you to be proactive about your own brain health but plan appropriately to care for an aging parent or relative who has or may develop dementia.


Does Alzheimer’s run in your family? What steps are you taking to prevent it?