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Early Healthy Habits Can Help Stave Off Late-Life Brain Degeneration

October 09, 2019

SAN DIEGO—While medications can address some of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, maintaining a healthy lifestyle can delay its onset and slow progression of the disease, a geriatric psychiatry expert told attendees at Psych Congress 2019.

“We’ve got a lot of tools that I think we’re underusing,” said Gary Small, MD, Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences and Parlow-Solomon Professor on Aging at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). “A systematic strategy does make a difference and helps people live better longer.”

More than 5 million people in the United States are affected by Alzheimer’s, he said, with a new case developing every 65 seconds. One in 3 adults dies with dementia and there is projected to be 1 million new cases per year by 2050.

See the session slides here

The hallmark plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s disease start growing in the brain decades before the disease develops, said Dr. Small, who is also director of the Longevity Center and the Division of Geriatric Psychiatry at UCLA.

“We want to intervene early. What tends to happen is that people intervene too little, too late,” he said. “It is clearly easier to protect a healthy brain than to try to repair damage once it’s extensive.”

Also at Psych Congress: Evidence Supports Mindfulness Meditation for Anxiety, Depression

The best evidence supports physical evidence as a preventative measure, Dr. Small said, and as little as 20 minutes of walking per day can help. It can aid in alertness and cognitive function, and results in the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which Dr. Small described as a “fertilizer” for brain cells that helps them communicate.

There is also a lot of evidence that mental evidence helps maintain a healthy brain, though the evidence is less compelling than the support for physical exercise, according to Dr. Small. College graduates and people who are bilingual have a lower risk of dementia, and even some computer games and searching for information online, have been shown to have effects, he pointed out.

“There are clear cognitive benefits and there are clear changes in neurocircuitry” with mental exercises, Dr. Small said.

Other helpful steps patients can take to maintain a health brain, according to the presentation, include:

• Increase their consumption of omega-3 fats, fruits, and vegetables and minimize their intake of processed foods and refined sugar.

• Maintain a healthy weight. People who are obese have a 4-fold increased risk for dementia and more memory problems, Dr. Small said.

• Do not smoke and avoid head trauma.

• Consume alcohol and caffeine in moderation.

• Take cholesterol and blood pressure medications if needed.

• Lower stress levels with activities such as meditation, relaxation exercises, and vacations, and maintain a positive outlook.

—Terri Airov


“Age-related cognitive decline: clinical applications of new research.” Presented at Psych Congress 2019: San Diego, CA; Oct. 6, 2019.

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