When medical journalist Jean Carper discovered she carried a gene (ApoE4) that made her particularly vulnerable to Alzheimer’s this acted as a wake up call. She trawled research findings from around the world to try to identify what might prevent Alzheimer’s. This book summarises her findings.
The good news is that many of her findings correlate with the information on healthy ageing and longevity we provide on Age Watch. Much of what we can do to reduce the risk of cancer, stroke and heart attack and increase the number of years of healthy life also turns out, according to Carper, to reduce the risk and effects of Alzheimer’s too. Examples include:
Diet – with anti-oxidants foods (like fruit and vegetables); a Mediterranean diet (including olive oil and red wine); apple juice (believed to mimic the Alzheimer’s drug donepezil); other 100% fruit juices; berries; choline rich foods (like eggs, wheat germ, peanuts and cauliflower); nuts; leafy vegetables (like spinach) and cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli); and fish rich in omega - 3 (like salmon and tuna) all recommended – whereas excess alcohol, fast foods, processed red meat, too much salt, saturated and trans fats (including deep fried food) should all be avoided- as too, importantly, should smoking!
Physical exercise – Carper advises, ’Make exercise the cornerstone of any strategy to disassociate your brain from cognitive failure and dementia’ and describes Exercise as being, ‘like Miracle-Gro for aging brain cells.’ Her review of the research suggests aerobic exercise is especially helpful, including brisk walking (particularly in parks, gardens and the countryside) but also everyday activity and even tai chi or yoga (to improve balance, as some research suggests good balance is less likely to lead to Alzheimer’s).
Mental exercise – Carper refers for example to the Cognitive Reserve hypothesis, which suggests the more we use our brains throughout our lives the more this builds up a ‘Cognitive Reserve’ which can prevent, delay or reduce the effects of Alzheimer’s. A wide range of mental activities are recommended, including learning a new language, meditation, continuing education and even internet searches and video games. In fact the book suggests doing anything new seems likely to help – whereas passively watching TV seems to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s. Carper also quotes interesting research at University College, London, which showed taxi drivers (who had to memorize and navigate London’s complex road routes) grew bigger brain cells than bus drivers (who followed set routes)- illustrating the value of mental challenge in everyday life.
The Four C’s – with Cinnamon, Cocoa (and dark chocolate), Coffee and Curcumin (the main ingredient in turmeric, used to make curries) each said to have potential value in reducing the risk of Alzheimers.
Some of the research reported by Carper has been undertaken in mice or rats and so can’t be guaranteed to apply equally well to humans. Strictly speaking, as with much research into diet and exercise (physical and mental), it would have been more accurate to describe this book as '100 simple things you can do to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's and age related memory loss' - rather than assuming that any single approach can guarantee preventing Alzheimer's.
There are also some omissions. For example a 21-year study of people aged 75 and older, led by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, suggested that one particular form of physical exercise, dance, was particularly effective in reducing the risk of dementia.
However, overall this is a reasonably comprehensive, readable and evidence based guide – and following the guidance provided seems likely to have a number of health benefits, over and above reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s.
100 Simple Things You Can Do to Prevent Alzheimer’s and Age Related Memory Loss– Jean Carper (Ebury Publishing/Random House ISBN 978 – 0 - 09-193951 – 9)