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Progress Towards the Treatment and Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer's Research Center

Vitamin D deficiency increases the risk for Alzheimer’s Disease

Vitamin D deficiency markedly increases the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. It is extremely prevalent among the elderly and is not uncommon in younger adults as well. In addition, vitamin D deficiency is associated with an increased risk of stroke. Therefore, low blood vitamin D concentrations increase the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease through both neurodegenerative and vascular mechanisms. Consequently, anyone interested in reducing their risk for Alzheimer’s disease should have a blood test to determine their level of vitamin D. If their vitamin D level is low, they should speak with their physician about correcting this deficiency.

Additional Risk Factors for Developing Alzheimer’s Disease

Aging is a major risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. The incidence and the prevalence rate for Alzheimer’s disease doubles every 5 years after the age of 65. However, some individuals develop Alzheimer’s disease in their 50’s or rarely even earlier.

Family history of Alzheimer’s disease increases the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. Having the APOE4 genotype significantly increases the risk for late onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Diabetes is associated with an increased risk for developing Alzheimer’s and decline in cognitive function.

Obesity, or having a large amount of abdominal fat, increases the risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

Poor Diet that contains a high intake of total fat, saturated fat, and total cholesterol increases the risk of dementia. Reduced consumption of fish containing omega-3 fatty acids also increases the risk for age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.

Smoking increases the risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

Lack of mental activity and exercise in mid-life may be a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s.

Head trauma with loss of consciousness may be a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.

Tips for Brain-Healthy Living

Our brain interprets the world around us, gives us the capacity for rational thought, is responsible for our person-alities, holds our memories, and controls our bodies. Yet, despite it’s importance, brain health is often overlooked. Improve your cognitive health with these 5 keys to brain-healthy living.

Physical Activity

Physical activity is one of the best ways to improve or maintain brain health. The brain receives energy and nutrients from the blood, so getting your heart rate up while exercising helps the brain get the fuel it needs. And it needs a lot of fuel – although the brain only makes up about 2% of the body by weight, it uses more than 20% of daily energy intake.

How much exercise should you get to boost your brainpower? One study showed that older people who exercised for 30 minutes at least 3 times a week had nearly 40% lower risk of dementia. If spending 30+ minutes at the gym seems daunting, here are some alternate ways to get active.

Incorporate exercise into family activities. Take a walk after dinner, play croquet in the yard, stroll through an apple orchard or pumpkin patch, head to the park, take a bike ride, fly a kite, enjoy a museum, go shopping, do some cleaning or yard work, wash the car by hand, toss a Frisbee, or play with the dog.

Work in short bouts of activity throughout the day. Take 10 minutes and jump rope, do some squats, lunges and jumping-jacks, do yoga poses and stretch, climb the stairs, or simply get up and walk around.

Take up an active hobby like gardening, dancing, horseback riding, coaching youth sports, sailing, or golf. Exercise doesn’t have to feel like work.

If you’re limited by physical restrictions, look for alternate ways to exercise. Many exercises can be done while seated (try a recumbent bike or seated weight exercises). Swimming or water aerobics are great alternatives to weight-bearing exercise. Yoga and tai chi are also good low-stress exercise options.


A healthy diet both improves everyday mental function and reduces the risk for chronic age-related brain diseases.Adopt a healthy diet by eating fresh vegetables,fruits, and lean meats. Dark-skinned vegetables and fruits tend to have more brain benefits. Cut back on foods high in unhealthy fats and cholesterol. Instead, use mono- and polyunsaturated fats (like olive oil) and choose grilled or baked foods over fried foods. The following foods are particularly good for brain health.

Blueberries and other berries help protect the brain from oxidative stress and may slow age-related cognitive decline.

Fish like mackerel, trout, tuna, and salmon are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential to proper brain function and have anti-inflammatory properties. Fish are also a healthier substitute for red meats high in saturated fat.

Nuts and seeds are good sources of vitamin E, which has been associated with decreasing cognitive decline caused by aging. But watch the serving size and avoid salted or coated nuts.

Avocados contain healthy fats and vitamins and may promote both cardiovascular and brain health. Try spreading mashed avocado on bread rather than using mayonnaise or butter. Like nuts, avocados are high in calories, so limit a serving to ¼ or ½ an avocado.

Whole grains have a number of health benefits, and may play a role in decreasing risk for brain diseases. Good options include oatmeal, brown rice, barley, rye, millet,quinoa, or whole grain breads, pastas, and flour. But be sure to look for the word “whole” before the grain – terms like “multigrain,” “100% wheat,” or “stone-ground” don’t necessarily mean the product is whole grain.

Social Engagement

Being socially active is a great way to challenge your brain, and also helps maintain support networks. Studies show that people who isolate themselves have a greater risk for developing dementia than people who remain socially engaged.

Ideas to increase social engagement:

  • Keep in touch with family and friends. Be the one to initiate phone calls or get-togethers. If it seems hard to find the time, schedule time to connect.
  • Join a club or activity. Find something that interests you by looking at community newsletters, bulletin boards, or online.
  • Make an effort to attend often overlooked social events like class reunions, workplace gatherings, or community meetings. Volunteer for a cause or campaign that you’ve always wanted to support.
  • Take advantage of casual encounters. Chat with someone in line at the grocery store, or get to know your neighbors.

Mental Stimulation

Keeping mentally active is an important part of brain health. Challenging yourself to think actively and try new things builds connections between brain cells, like exercising your body builds up muscle cells.

Exercise your brain with these activities:

  • Play strategy games, or try games specifically designed to exercise your brain.
  • Read and write daily.
  • Seek new activities and unfamiliar settings, like traveling or a new hobby.
  • Continue your education by taking a class or learning a new language.
  • Try doing things with your non-dominant hand. If you’re right-hand-ed, use your left hand to brush your teeth & open doors, or take the first stair with your left leg.
  • Take up new hobbies. Hobbies involving hand-eye coordination and mental calculation (like sewing, wood-working) are great ways to involve different parts of the brain. Either playing or listening to music can have a positive effect on the brain.

Cardiovascular Health

Heart health is closely linked to brain health. Cardiovascular problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and high cholesterol increase the risk of developing dementias like Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. Help your brain by following these heart-healthy guidelines:
  • Don’t smoke, and avoid second hand smoke. There is a strong link between heavy smoking and certain brain diseases.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese increases the risk for type 2 diabetes, which is also strongly linked to decreased brain function.
  • Manage your blood pressure & cholesterol.
  • Moderate sugar, salt, and alcohol consumption.Looking for other ways to boost your memory? Get plenty of sleep and avoid excess stress.

Medications for the Treatment of Mild to Moderate Alzheimer's Disease

Aricept ® (Pfizer, Inc.) - FDA approved 1996 has been shown to improve the cognitive abilities of some patients and may slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. It has become the drug of choice for treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. However, patients treated with Aricept may decline abruptly if the medication is ever discontinued.

Namenda ® (Forrest Pharmaceuticals) - FDA approved 2003, for treatment of moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease. It has been shown to improve ability to think, activities of daily living, and behavior. It has also been shown to provide additional benefit when taken in combination with Aricept.

Exelon ® (Novartis, Inc.) - FDA approved 2000, is available for the treatment of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. It has been proven to have a positive effect on the three main areas of overall functioning, including behavior, cognition, and activities of daily living. A skin patch form of Exelon has recently been approved, which may lessen side effects such as nausea and vomiting.

Razadyne ® (Janssen, Inc.) - FDA approved 2000, is also for patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. It improves activities of daily living such as dressing, eating, using the bathroom, preparing meals, and using a phone; all which are things that demand much of a caregiver’s time.

A Note to Caregivers

If you are a caregiver, be sure to care for your own health too by eating a balanced diet, exercising, and implementing a stress management regimen. A study at Stanford University found that older women, who averaged 72 hours a week caring for a demented family member, benefited significantly from moderate exercise such as brisk walking for half an hour, four times a week. It can also help to take a break by using a respite care service or asking other family members or friends to help out. For assistance with finding and using a respite care service, contact The National Council on Aging at 1-800-222-2225.