A healthy lifestyle now is key to preventing Alzheimer’s disease later, says Harvard neurology professor Rudolph Tanzi, PhD, one of the world’s leading Alzheimer’s researchers and coauthor with Deepak Chopra, MD, FACP, of Super Genes and the New York Times best-selling Super Brain. That’s because signs of the disease often begin appearing in the brain up to 15 years before serious dementia sets in (as seen on MRIs).
In 2014 Tanzi’s lab synthesized Alzheimer’s in a petri dish using “mini brains” created from human stem cells. This breakthrough allowed deeper understanding of the three key factors contributing to dementia:
• Amyloid plaque triggers the disease by strangling brain nerve cells.
• The damage causes tangles within the nerves.
• This leads to neuroinflammation, which accelerates and then compounds the disease.
Tanzi believes the key to staving off Alzheimer’s and maintaining your brain’s resilience is fighting the neuroinflammation.
Researchers have studied people who died in their 80s with no cognitive issues. Their brains were full of plaques and tangles, but they exhibited no symptoms of dementia because there was no inflammation.
“Plaques and tangles start the cell death, like starting brushfires. Those brushfires spread, but if you don’t have neuroinflammation, you don’t get the full-blown forest fire,” Tanzi explains.
The spread of inflammation is highly dependent upon your lifestyle, he notes. With that in mind, he suggests doing these three things now to protect yourself against Alzheimer’s:
1. Get your z’s: During deep sleep, your brain cleans out amyloid amassed during the day, as well as other “brain debris” that induces inflammation.
“So deep sleep’s important,” advises Tanzi. “We recommend that you religiously get seven to eight hours of sleep daily, especially if you’re over 40. If you don’t, you’re not giving your brain enough of a chance to clean itself.”
2. Keep moving: Exercise does several things that combat Alzheimer’s. First, as you exercise, the brain creates enzymes that actually attack and chew up amyloid plaque. Second, in a process called neurogenesis, your brain makes new nerve cells in the hippocampus, the area affected by Alzheimer’s. Finally, as the results of a new study by Tanzi’s research team show, exercise actually reduces inflammation in the brain.
His recommendation? “The very simple prescription of 8,000 to 10,000 steps per day is a good goal,” he says. “You don’t have to go crazy; just keep moving.”
3. Eat real food: Ingredients in junk and processed foods promote inflammation throughout your body, including in your brain, Tanzi says.
Plus, poor dietary choices harm your gut. “Your microbiome, via the gut–brain axis, is in constant communication with your brain and regulates neuroinflammation,” he explains, so keeping it healthy with good, real food, as well as prebiotics and probiotics, is critical.
“If you take care of your microbiome, it’ll take care of you — and that’s all the way up to your brain,” says Tanzi.
Alzheimer’s by the Numbers