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Return to Lower Alzheimer's Risk Linked to Exercise, Diet Overview

More on Lower Alzheimer's Risk Linked to Exercise, Diet

Lower Alzheimer's Risk Linked to Exercise, Diet

New York (Mar 23, 2010)

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Alzheimer's disease is a devastating illness that by degrees robs people of their memories, their independence, their connections to those closest to them, and eventually their lives. Almost 5.3 million Americans now have Alzheimer's, and that number is projected to quadruple over the next 50 years as the number of older Americans expands. A growing body of evidence, including a new study by NewYork-Presbyterian neurologist Nikolaos Scarmeas, suggests that lifestyle changes already recommended for heart health can help prevent Alzheimer's disease. Dr. Scarmeas's August 12, 2009 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) underscores the link between a healthy (Mediterranean-type) diet, exercise, and a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer's.

Dr. Scarmeas and colleagues in NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center's Department of Neurology tracked the health of 1,800 people in a multi-ethnic community, aged 65 or older, in northern Manhattan over 5.5 years. About half of the study subjects, were Hispanic; the rest were equally African-American or white. The researchers met with the subjects approximately every year and a half in their homes, recording their dietary habits and physical activity, and assessing their mental status with standardized neurological and neuropsychological measures. Over the course of the study 282 of the 1,800 subjects developed Alzheimer's disease.

Dr. Nikolaos Scarmeas
Dr. Nikolaos Scarmeas

"We found that those people who were following a healthier diet (high levels of fruits, vegetables, legumes, cereals, and fish, and low levels of meat and dairy products ) had a lower risk for getting Alzheimer's disease, and similarly those people who were more physically active had a lower risk for getting Alzheimer's disease," said Dr. Scarmeas. People who followed a very healthy diet and were also most physically active had a 9% chance of developing Alzheimer's while those who did neither had a 21% chance of developing the disease.

"This study found evidence supporting both physical exercise and the Mediterranean diet as potentially risk-lowering for Alzheimer's disease," said neurologist Norman Relkin, Director of the Memory Disorders Program at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. "It is consistent with other studies suggesting that diet and exercise modification may help prevent dementia," he added.

Dr. Norman Relkin
Dr. Norman R. Relkin

A healthy diet and exercise may be effective preventive measures for a number of reasons, said Dr. Scarmeas. "There is evidence that a Mediterranean-type diet and physical activity are associated with a lower risk for high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol levels, diabetes, heart disease, obesity – and more and more studies are showing that these cardiovascular risk factors may be associated with increased risk for Alzheimer's disease," he said. "We also know that physical activity and a healthy diet lower inflammation and oxidative stress throughout the body, and inflammation and oxidative stress are thought to be among the biological mechanisms that fuel the propagation of Alzheimer's disease."

"Interventions that are heart-healthy and promote the health of the vascular system are also going to preserve the health of the brain," Dr. Relkin added. Diets loaded with carbohydrates or saturated fats may promote the build up of the protein associated with Alzheimer's in the brain, he noted.

Dr. Relkin consults with relatives of patients with Alzheimer's and others who are at high risk of the disease for one reason or another. Beyond assessing and treating hypertension, a known Alzheimer's risk factor, "lifestyle modification is currently the only advice we can give them to lower their dementia risk," he said. "What's heart-healthy is also good for the brain," he tells this group, recommending diet and exercise as potential means of lowering their risk for the disease.

The JAMA study presents very encouraging evidence that Alzheimer's disease is the result of both genetic influences and "lifetime exposures," said Dr. Relkin. "Dr. Scarmeas and colleagues have focused on an area that is still very understudied. There is a pressing need to know the value of these interventions in reducing dementia risk so that we are able to design effective public health initiatives."

Nikolaos Scarmeas, M.D., is an Assistant Attending Neurologist at the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer's Disease and the Aging Brain at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center and an Assistant Professor in Clinical Neurology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Norman R. Relkin. M.D., Ph.D., is the Director of the Alzheimer's Disease & Memory Disorders Program and an Associate Attending Neurologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. He is also an Associate Professor of Clinical Neurology and Neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medical College.

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