Alzheimer’s disease is increasing among younger people. But while a three-fold increase in early-onset dementia and Alzheimer’s disease among younger adults may seem frightening, many cases are prematurely diagnosed and reversible.
There are at least a dozen explanations for memory loss. Many people suffering from dementia have more than one contributing factor among causes that are mostly preventable, temporary, or avoidable. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that your average doctor may not be fully aware of that. A study published in May in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease pointed out that no pharmaceutical options for Alzheimer’s and dementia have offered improvement or even stopped cognitive decline.
Given pharmaceuticals are the default treatment for many doctors, that leads to an unsettling doctor’s visit if you’re experiencing memory loss or other cognitive issues.
“It’s not surprising when neurologists say, ‘There’s nothing we can do.’ Thousands of patients are told this every day,” said Lisa Feiner, a board-certified health and wellness coach. “Most doctors are not trained in things like nutrition or stress reduction or toxins or treating trauma or sleep issues.”
But lifestyle modifications are successfully reversing or minimizing symptoms for many patients who implement change. In a study published in August in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, 21 of 25 patients improved after physicians used each person’s genetics and biomarkers to create a nine-month personalized protocol. Patients were evaluated for multiple contributing factors, including inflammation, insulin resistance, nutrient and hormonal deficiencies, toxins, and genetics.
“With this precision medicine approach, I’ve witnessed person after person regain lost brain function, get back to their life’s work, re-establish friendships, or start new creative activities,” Dr. Ann Hathaway, one of the study co-authors, wrote in an Apollo Health article. “It’s very gratifying to share this success publicly. Can you imagine a world where Alzheimer’s is a rare disease?”
Dementia Rises Among Younger Adults
About 131,000 commercially insured Americans between 30 and 64 years of age were diagnosed with early-onset dementia or Alzheimer’s disease in 2017, according to the Blue Cross Blue Shield Health Index. It’s an increase of 200 percent over four years, and while the numbers are relatively small, it’s the increase in younger age groups that’s concerning.
The number diagnosed with these conditions increased by 373 percent among 30- to 44-year-olds, 311 percent among 45- to 54-year-olds, and 143 percent among 55- to 64-year-olds from 2013 to 2017.
“It doesn’t necessarily wait anymore until people are in old age,” said Feiner, who’s also the co-founder and chair of Sharp Again Naturally, a nonprofit that educates and coaches people on how to slow or reverse memory loss.
In fact, based on averages, the time from diagnosis to death is 11 years, during which time patients are living at 63 percent optimal health.
“We have got to stem the tide of memory loss in this country,” she said. “It’s more important than ever. It will bankrupt us. It will bankrupt Medicare.”
In spite of the warning, she said there’s also a lot of hope. Those who are committed to following programs such as those used at Sharp Again Naturally are experiencing vast improvements. Using webinars and collaborating with doctors, Sharp Again Naturally is training on affordable, easy changes people can make right away.
“There’s so much more people can do preventatively. We know that it works,” Feiner said. “People improve. It is within our grasp.”
Doctors once mistakenly believed that neurons decreased and died in dementia and that intervention made no difference. While there’s a lot that’s still unknown, caregivers are starting to recognize that early intervention offers a great deal of success.
Many factors influence the development and progression of dementia, and research indicates that patients can significantly affect the course of their prognosis through several channels. For instance, body inflammation has an immediate effect on clarity and cognition and ebbs and flows with our diet, physical fitness, and more.
Tips for Early Intervention and Prevention
Regardless of the cause of memory loss, making changes in the areas of food choices, movement, sleep, and stress will offer many brain and body benefits.
Sharp Again Naturally has a free e-book with specific recommendations on its website. It continually offers updates on the identified causes of memory loss. Dementia is linked with hormonal imbalance, stress, social isolation, diets high in carbohydrates and fast food, air pollution, high-sugar diets, gum disease, lack of exercise, poor sleep, and more.
Dementia isn’t just an “old person’s” disease; poor habits over a lifetime can slowly chip away at cognition.
Ideally, good nutrition begins in our youth with access to diverse food that we eat without bribery or coercion. Food, especially sweet treats filled with added sweeteners and artificial flavors and colors, shouldn’t be offered as a reward. This can lead to emotional eating and distort our relationship with food.
A balanced diet high in protein and healthy fats with vegetables of many colors is the goal. Ideal nutrition also involves eating habits such as giving the body extended breaks from digestion with daily fasting of 12 hours or longer. We should eat to ensure nutritional needs and maintain a proper balance of gut bacteria. A healthy microbiome protects us from disease, regulates our immune system, and aids in proper food digestion and nutrient absorption.
A 2021 study in Neurology reported that eating a diet rich in flavonoids was associated with keeping a sharp mind. High-flavonoid foods include berries, red cabbage, kale, citrus fruits, apples, celery, cherries, pears, and peppers.
Obesity is a major risk factor for dementia and Alzheimer’s. A study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology in 2020 found people with excess weight in midlife had a 34 percent higher chance of developing dementia based on data from the long-running English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA).
“Women who carried extra weight around their waistline were particularly vulnerable,” notes an article on the study from the United Kingdom’s National Institute for Health and Care Research.
The 2018 U.S. Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System marked a shift because midlife obesity overtook physical inactivity as the top modifiable risk factor associated with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.
The analysis of 378,615 respondents examined physical inactivity, current smoking, depression, low education, diabetes, midlife obesity, midlife hypertension, and hearing loss.
Physical inactivity and low educational attainment were the others in the top three. In 2011, the most common factors were physical inactivity, depression, and smoking.
Exercise and Physical Fitness
Exercise is one of the best ways to reduce dementia risk. Regular exercise will help improve oxygen flow, support new brain cell formation, and improve memory. Moving your body every day can help control blood sugar, improve your sleep, and provide the chance for socializing—all factors that can reduce dementia risk.
Exercise is important to relieve stress, a risk factor for cognitive decline.
Strengthening the core muscles and building confidence with movement can also improve balance and prevent falls. Older adults are especially at risk of falls that can cause brain damage.
A research review published in Frontiers in Neuroscience in 2020 pointed to the importance of physical activity:
“Most prospective studies have proven that physical inactivity is one of the most common preventable risk factors for developing AD [Alzheimer’s disease] and that higher physical activity levels are associated with a reduced risk of AD development. Physical exercise seems to be effective in improving several neuropsychiatric symptoms of AD, notably cognitive function.”
A Swedish study published in Neurology in 2018 found strong links between stamina and the risk for dementia.
“We found that high cardiovascular fitness in midlife was associated with decreased risk of dementia in a population of women followed up for up to 44 years. High compared to medium fitness decreased the risk of dementia by 88 percent,” the authors of the study said.
While sedentary behavior can generally increase the risk of dementia, what you do while sitting can make a difference.
A new study examining adults aged 60 and older found that those who spend long periods sitting while engaged in passive activities such as watching television were more at risk of dementia than those who sat doing more stimulating activities, such as reading, doing puzzles, playing cards, or using the computer. The research was published in August in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Chemicals in the air, processed foods, and beauty and cleaning products create a burden on the body that must be filtered out through detoxification.
Toxins may harm the brain by depositing amyloid-beta plaques in it, creating inflammation or oxidative damage or inducing apoptosis (cell death).
Chronic exposure can increase the risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases. Cognitive decline has also been linked to biotoxins produced by bacteria, molds, and viruses.
Metals such as mercury and lead are neurotoxic, and the detoxification pathways in some people might not be able to adequately rid the body of them. These pollutants can be found in the air, drinking water, fish such as tuna, and some dental fillings. A 2022 review of previous studies found that “the toxic effects of mercury and arsenic in neurodegenerative diseases … can be characterized as the influence of the most significant risk factors.”
The endocrine system, responsible for making hormones that regulate many bodily functions, plays an important role in cognition.
This system regulates metabolism and blood sugar levels. Disturbances in insulin, a major symptom of diabetes, can impact the brain and other bodily functions. In fact, Alzheimer’s disease is often referred to as Type 3 diabetes because of its correlation to blood sugar irregularities.
“Insulin insensitivity has been linked to memory deficits, cognitive decline, and many of the characteristic symptoms that have been displayed in [Alzheimer’s]. At the same time, Type 2 diabetes has remained one of the most adjustable risk factors for the development” of Alzheimer’s, according to a research review published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences in 2020.
Other hormonal imbalances, such as thyroid and estrogen imbalances, can also play a role in memory. A 2010 article in Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports states that estrogen’s role in cognitive decline puts both women and men at risk of dementia.
At least a dozen different types of drugs cause side effects that manifest as memory loss or cognitive decline.
All drugs with anticholinergic properties are among those that can cause the most harm to the brain. These medications block the effect of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that naturally declines with age. It can be found in drugs to treat urinary incontinence, some antidepressants, antipsychotics, heart medications, antispasmodics, and drugs for vertigo and Parkinson’s.
Steroids, anxiety medications, sleeping pills, chemotherapy, and statins have all been implicated for cognitive side effects that could be confused with dementia. A complete chart can be found on the BrightFocus website.
There’s evidence suggesting that infections stemming from viruses, bacteria, and fungi could either cause memory loss or exacerbate cognition decline in those who have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Research does show that Alzheimer’s is more common in people who have infections, according to Alzheimer’s Society in London, but older people are also more susceptible to infections.
Sleeping and Breathing Problems
Sleep apnea, associated with mouth breathing, puts you at a significant risk for dementia, especially Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. An April article in the Journal of Sleep Research examined 11 different studies showing that this is a modifiable risk.
Sleep is vital for detoxifying the brain, a function that clears out debris to keep neuropathways clear. Building an environment for getting a good night’s sleep involves the temperature of the room, bedding, design of the room, and habits before bed.
“All of these things impact how well you sleep. I think people tend to toss off things like, ‘I’m stressed out’ or ‘I didn’t sleep well,’ and they don’t realize it’s impacting long-term brain health. It’s no longer a badge of honor to get four or five hours of sleep,” Feiner said.
Trauma and Stress
A perhaps less expected factor in dementia is trauma. A review of 25 studies on the relationship between trauma and dementia found that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) increases the risk for dementia in older adults and dementia raises the risk for delayed-onset PTSD in those who have had a significant trauma earlier in life. This finding was published in The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry in 2019.
Trauma and chronic stress can also elevate cortisol levels and cause inflammation, which can cause memory lapses, confusion, and depression. Stress is also associated with a myriad of health problems, such as weight gain, headaches, digestive issues, and insomnia, that can all play a part in brain function.
The more stress you have, the more your risk of dementia rises later in life. A study published in 2019 in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease examined 6,807 people for risk of dementia 10 years after an initial assessment of 17 different symptoms of psychological distress. For each additional symptom, the dementia incidence increased by 2 percent.
Cortisol, the hormone released when you’re stressed, is linked to memory dysfunction. Stress is also associated with depression, anxiety, and lowered immunity. All three of those are factors that have been linked to dementia.
Brain health depends on many factors that you can exercise significant control over. Besides those listed above, community connections and activities that keep the brain active can also be an important way to stay mentally healthy and stave off dementia risk.
It’s empowering for people to discover that their brain health is something they can tend to. Karel Karpe, executive director of Sharp Again Naturally, said that for the first time in two decades, a diagnosis doesn’t have to mean you’re heading to a nursing home.
“There are times in our lives when we do go through some problem. It’s not that uncommon. But the mind is very powerful,” Feiner said.
The key is to bring the nervous system back into balance from whatever insults knocked it from normal function.
Dr. Dale Bredesen, a pioneer in the field of dementia whose ReCODE protocol has been successfully studied for its effect on Alzheimer’s, leverages the internet to reach greater numbers of patients. He’s also written a book called “The End of Alzheimer’s Program.”
ReCODE is an intensive lifestyle-based program that provides nutritional, lifestyle, hormone, and supplement recommendations. It requires the active participation of patients.
The key takeaway from mounting research is that cognitive decline is like any form of early physical deterioration. If you take care of your mind and body, you’ll age better, live longer, and enjoy better health. A dementia diagnosis isn’t an inescapable decline, but it should be a prompt for meaningful action.
Diet Tips for Dementia
For daily eating, Stay Sharp Naturally suggests:
- vegetables, especially leafy greens and crucifers such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts.
- berries, especially blueberries.
- generous servings of pesticide-free, organic vegetables and fruit.
- protein and high omega-3 fats such as avocados, flaxseed,
hemp seeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, SMASH fish (salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, herring), and spirulina.
- sufficient water, at least half your weight in ounces. If you weigh 150 pounds, for example, drink at least 75 ounces of water.
- vitamin and mineral supplements that are unique to your deficiencies.
What you should avoid:
- processed foods.
- baked goods, rice and pasta, or anything made with white, refined flour.
- refined sugars, such as corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, and glucose.
- fruit juice concentrate.
- sweetened beverages.
- grains (or at least minimize them).