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Alzheimer’s disease has a strong genetic component, but lifestyle behaviors such as exercise and diet can help lower some risks. Getty Images
  • A new study has identified 19 risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Higher risk factors included high body mass index late in life, diabetes, and stress.
  • Lower risk factors included weight loss late in life and sleep patterns.
  • Experts say genetics are the strongest component of Alzheimer’s disease, but some lifestyle changes can help reduce risk.

There’s not much medical science can currently do to help you if you have Alzheimer’s disease.

But there’s a lot you can do personally to potentially lower your risk of getting the neurological disease in the first place.

A new report from China identifies 19 “life-course practices” that can reduce Alzheimer’s disease risk through behavioral change.

“Nearly two-thirds of these suggestions target vascular risk factors and lifestyle, strengthening the importance of keeping a good vascular condition, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle for preventing [Alzheimer’s],” according to the research review led by Dr. Jin-Tai Yu of Shanghai Medical College, Fudan University.

The review of nearly 400 studies identified higher risk factors such as:

  • high body mass index (BMI) in late life
  • hyperhomocysteinemia (high levels of the amino acid homocysteine in the blood)
  • depression
  • stress
  • diabetes
  • head trauma
  • hypertension in midlife
  • orthostatic hypotension (dizziness when you stand up after sitting or lying down)

Lower educational attainment and cognitive activity were also associated with a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Factors that were considered to have less of a role in Alzheimer’s development included:

  • obesity in midlife
  • weight loss in late life
  • physical exercise
  • smoking
  • sleep
  • cerebrovascular disease
  • frailty
  • atrial fibrillation
  • insufficient vitamin C intake

“Behavioral change — more exactly, maintaining a healthy lifestyle — indeed plays an important role in modifying all [the] 19 associated factors,” Yu told Healthline. “However, to achieve the anticipated goals, only behavioral change is not enough, and we do recommend some specific interventions.”

Hypertension, for example, can be addressed through lifestyle changes such as limiting salt intake, quitting smoking, and reducing stress.

“But antihypertensive drugs are inevitable for the patients who [have] already been diagnosed with hypertension,” said Yu. “In addition, some other interventions like nicotine replacement for stubborn tobacco addiction, hypoglycemic drugs for diabetes, anticoagulants for atrial fibrillation, B-vitamin and/or folic acid for hyperhomocysteinemia, are also suggested.”

Keiland Cooper, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine, told Healthline that there are no proven Alzheimer’s risk reduction strategies because the disease seems to have strong genetic underpinnings.

However, behavioral changes can help.

“There are several lifestyle factors which have been shown to correlate with a reduction in disease rates for certain populations,” Cooper said.

“Roughly two-thirds of the authors’ suggestions revolve around the cardiovascular system, which is in line with multiple studies that have begun investigating the multiple potential risk factors and protective factors of the system which are associated with Alzheimer’s disease,” said Cooper.

“For instance, ACE2, a protein involved with the cardiovascular system, has been implicated as a protective factor for Alzheimer’s disease previously,” he added.

Sarah C. McEwen, PhD, director of research and programming for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California and an associate professor of translational neurosciences and neurotherapeutics at the John Wayne Cancer Institute, called the new report the “most comprehensive and rigorous one to date regarding risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease.”

“One of the new and most prevalent risk factors to emerge from this report is hyperhomocysteinemia, which is commonly found in those with B12 or folate deficiencies and much more common in those who consume diets high in meat. [This] highlights the relative importance of including a diet higher in plant than meat protein for Alzheimer’s prevention,” McEwen told Healthline.

McEwen noted that the report also cast doubt on claims that estrogen replacement therapy and acetylcholinesterase inhibitors are effective interventions for Alzheimer’s disease.

“These new findings are incredibly helpful for clinicians, illuminating the necessity to do a deeper dive into their patients’ medical histories and further blood tests to see if their patients present with any of these risk factors,” she said.

“And this study is also incredibly helpful to individuals who are worried about their risk for Alzheimer’s, maybe based on family history, genetic factors, currently experiencing cognitive decline or just want to do everything they can to ensure they won’t get Alzheimer’s as they age,” McEwen said.

“The conclusions made from this study should empower individuals to know their lifestyle choices and behaviors have an impact on their risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease, and that early intervention is critical since this disease process starts on average about 15 years before the onset of symptoms and diagnosis,” she added.

“There is more and more evidence that modifiable risk factors play an important role in protecting people from developing cognitive decline as they age, including Alzheimer’s disease,” Keith Fargo, PhD, director of scientific programs and outreach for the Alzheimer’s Association, told Healthline.

“However, with the explosion of research in this area, it can be difficult to sort through all the information,” he said. “This kind of study helps identify which modifiable risk factors currently have the best evidence.’’

“What we are learning is that there are things you can do now to protect your thinking and memory as you age, and with Alzheimer’s prevalence in the U.S. already more than 5 million people — and climbing — the Alzheimer’s Association urges every American to take steps to reduce their risk of cognitive decline,” he added. “It’s never too early to start.”

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