Conference Coverage

Could preventing dementia be as simple as following your mom’s advice?



– To prevent dementia, follow Mom’s advice: Get up off the couch, go play with your friends, and eat your vegetables.

Dr. Laura Baker, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, N.C. Michele G. Sullivan/MDedge News

Dr. Laura Baker

After 15 years of disappointing drug trials, strong new evidence says the best way to attack Alzheimer’s disease is not to treat it once it develops, but to prevent it in the first place, Laura D. Baker, PhD, said at the Clinical Trials on Alzheimer’s Disease conference. Studies of exercise, cognitive and social stimulation, and diet show that each one can reduce the risk of dementia, and that a combination of all three may have even a more powerful and synergistic effect.

“We have become absolutely phobic of exercise,” said Dr. Baker of Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, N.C. And it’s not just structured exercise we shirk. “We take the closest parking space, sit for hours on end, don’t even take the stairs. Yet we know from years of work that exercise has a powerful benefit on cardiovascular disease, lipid profiles, metabolic disease, stress, and mood. Now we are seeing that exercise also promotes brain health in normal aging and protects against cognitive decline and prevention.”

Get off the couch

The general benefits of exercise – chiefly aerobic exercise – are myriad, Dr. Baker said.

“Exercise increases effective neurorepair. It reduces oxidative stress. It improves insulin sensitivity and helps with maintaining normal weight. It reduces inflammation and increases normal clearance of amyloid-beta.”

A 2017 meta-analysis reviewed some of these findings. “The current review [of 16 studies] suggests that aerobic exercise may have positive effects on the right hippocampus and potentially beneficial effects on the overall and other parts of the hippocampus, the cingulate cortex, and the medial temporal areas. ... Moreover, aerobic exercise may increase functional connectivity or activation in the hippocampus, cingulate cortex, and parahippocampal gyrus regions,” wrote Mo-yi Li, PhD, of Fujian University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Fuzhou, China, and colleagues.

Exercise increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which in turn increases neuronal potentiation and synaptic plasticity. BDNF is also important in hippocampal neurogenesis; mice, after just one aerobic session, showed dramatic boosts in BDNF. A 2018 review elaborates on these findings.

Eat right

Diet mediates dementia risk through less direct, but very effective, pathways, Dr. Baker said. Diets rich in vegetables, berries, nuts, fish, lean proteins, and healthy fats improves virtually all metabolic measures. These, in turn, reduce the risk cerebrovascular disease – an important driver of vascular dementias and a contributor to Alzheimer’s disease risk as well.

The MIND diet study (Mediterranean-DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay), reported in 2015 was a very successful demonstration of this concept. A combination of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), the MIND diet stresses frequent consumption of vegetables – especially leafy greens – as well as nuts, berries, whole grains, fish, poultry, and wine or grape juice. In the large, nearly 5-year study of 923 subjects aged 58-98 years, the MIND diet was associated with significant gains in cognition – equivalent to a 7-year reversal of age. After 4.5 years, those who strictly adhered to the diet had a 53% reduction in risk for Alzheimer’s disease, and those who adhered moderately had a 35% reduction. And in a more recent Australian longitudinal study, the MIND diet was associated with a 53% reduced risk of cognitive impairment over 12 years.

Ketogenic diets also may exert a benefit. Theoretically, a state of ketosis forces the brain to burn ketones as an alternative fuel to glucose, thus boosting brain function in glucose-starved brains. A small pilot study with exploratory cognitive endpoints determined that diet-compliant subjects with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s experienced a mean 5-point improvement in the Alzheimer’s Disease Assessment Score–Cognition. They reverted to baseline scores within a month of ending the study.

Recent initial work into the gut microbiome provides some additional speculative, but interesting, data. A dysregulated microbiome can shift microbial populations toward a more inflammatory profile. Some work suggests that inflammatory cytokines then travel to the brain and induce a hyperresponse of neuron-damaging immune cells. A comprehensive review article discusses the complicated mechanisms that may be in play.

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