Alzheimer’s disease is one of the leading causes of death in developed countries, accounting for 4% of American deaths in 2014 according to the CDC, and nearly 5.5% of deaths in Finland annually – but we know very little about what triggers this devastating disease. What doctors have discovered, however, is that natural prevention methods are of greater benefit to those at risk of the condition than any current pharmaceutical intervention. From vitamin supplements to dietary changes and behavioral habits, individuals can reduce their risk of developing Alzheimer’s while also boosting their overall health.
Alzheimer’s is a brain disease, so when lay people think about prevention, many believe the most important practices are memory exercises like doing crossword puzzles or supplements that nourish the brain. These things are certainly beneficial, but one thing that’s commonly overlooked is the role of heart health in neurological wellness.
In Finland, where Alzheimer’s is uniquely prevalent, scientists have found an association between regular use of saunas and diminished Alzheimer’s risk, a surprising combination. According to scientists, the link is almost certainly cardiovascular. Regularly visiting saunas, which can reach 175F, raises the heart rate as the body compensates for the heat. Those who use these facilities also have lower blood pressure, a factor in better blood vessel health. With the heart pumping more efficiently and blood flow to the brain improved, sauna users are about 65% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.
Nutrition also plays a considerable role in neurological health, and regionally specific dietary practices make it easier for scientists to track what foods seem to benefit the brain most. One conclusion: consuming some iteration of the Mediterranean diet may help reduce Alzheimer’s risk. Or rather, as global dietary trends change, former hallmarks of the Mediterranean, particularly grains, vegetables, fish, and olive oil, are considered centerpieces of a brain-healthy diet.
For those who struggle to get these key nutrients into their diet, supplements such as fish oil can help fill in the gaps. Those who eat large amounts of fish or supplement their diets with fish oil have been shown to have greater overall brain volume than those with the lowest intake levels. Fish oil also helps facilitate the production of a protein called LR11 that can destroy amyloid plaques, which are the source of brain damage in Alzheimer’s disease.
Stomach Health Secrets
Eating more fish and less red meat isn’t the only dietary change that can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Cultivating beneficial gut bacteria can also help. In countries like Japan, where the Alzheimer’s rate is very low, fermented foods like miso and pickled vegetables and fish are dietary staples. Such fermented foods contain large amounts of good bacteria, supporting stomach and intestinal health.
In contrast, many foods in the United States and other Western countries that are described as pickled are actually “quick-pickled” with white vinegar, which does not provide the same benefits – it’s a quicker, biologically different process. Taking probiotic supplements, on the other hand, can provide the same benefit as eating true fermented foods because they offer users a dose of those helpful bacteria.
Too many people think about their bodily systems as separate, rather than seeing the intimate connections between the brain, heart, gut, and other groupings, yet when one system is compromised, others follow. To reduce climbing Alzheimer’s rates, then, full body health is vital. It may be a disease of the brain, but Alzheimer’s can set its roots anywhere, including in the heart and intestines, before the brain is affected.