Evidence-Based Reviews

Can lifestyle modifications delay or prevent Alzheimer’s disease?

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Evidence suggests combining lifestyle modifications may yield better cognitive outcomes.



Clinicians have devoted strenuous efforts to secondary prevention of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) by diagnosing and treating patients as early as possible. Unfortunately, there is no cure for AD, and the field has witnessed recurrent failures of several pharmacotherapy candidates with either symptomatic or disease-modifying properties.1 An estimated one-third of AD cases can be attributed to modifiable risk factors.2 Thus, implementing primary prevention measures by addressing modifiable risk factors thought to contribute to the disease, with the goal of reducing the risk of developing AD, or at least delaying its onset, is a crucial public health strategy.

Cardiovascular risk factors, such as hypertension, hyperlipidemia, diabetes, hyperhomocysteinemia, obesity, and smoking, have emerged as substantive risk factors for AD.3 Optimal management of these major risk factors, especially in mid-life, may be a preventive approach against AD. Although detailing the evidence on the impact of managing cardiovascular risk factors to delay or prevent AD is beyond the scope of this article, it is becoming clear that “what is good for the heart is good for the brain.”

Additional modifiable risk factors are related to lifestyle habits, such as physical exercise, mental and social activity, meditation/spiritual activity, and diet. This article reviews the importance of pursuing a healthy lifestyle in delaying AD, with the corresponding levels of evidence that support each specific lifestyle modification. The levels of evidence are defined in Table 1.4

Practice guidelines levels of evidence

Physical exercise

Twenty-one percent of AD cases in the United States are attributable to physical inactivity.5 In addition to its beneficial effect on metabolic syndrome, in animal and human research, regular exercise has been shown to have direct neuroprotective effects. High levels of physical activity increase hippocampal neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, increase vascular circulation in the brain regions implicated in AD, and modulate inflammatory mediators as well as brain growth factors such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1).6

The definition of regular physical exercise varies across the literature, but usually implies aerobic exercise—an ongoing activity sufficient to increase the heart rate and the need for oxygen, sustained for 20 to 30 minutes per session.7 Modalities include household activities and leisure-time activities. In a large prospective cohort study, Scarmeas et al8 categorized leisure-time activities into 3 types:

  • light (walking, dancing, calisthenics, golfing, bowling, gardening, horseback riding)
  • moderate (bicycling, swimming, hiking, playing tennis)
  • vigorous (aerobic dancing, jogging, playing handball).

These types of physical exercise were weighed by the frequency of participation per week. Compared with being physically inactive, low levels of weekly physical activity (0.1 hours of vigorous, 0.8 hours of moderate, or 1.3 hours of light exercise) were associated with a 29% to 41% lower risk of developing AD, while higher weekly physical activity (1.3 hours of vigorous, 2.3 hours of moderate, or 3.8 hours of light exercise) were associated with a 37% to 50% lower risk (level III).8

In another 20-year cohort study, engaging in leisure-time physical activity at least twice a week in mid-life was significantly associated with a reduced risk of AD, after adjusting for age, sex, education, follow-up time, locomotor disorders, apolipoprotein E (ApoE) genotype, vascular disorders, smoking, and alcohol intake (level III).9 Moreover, a systematic review of 29 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) showed that aerobic exercise training, such as brisk walking, jogging, and biking, was associated with improvements in attention, processing speed, executive function, and memory among healthy older adults and those with mild cognitive impairment (MCI; level IA).10

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