Forget Me Not

For many of us, Alzheimer’s may be avoidable. Longevity expert Gary Small offers tips

What are the odds of developing Alzheimer’s?
If you live to age 50, your odds are very low. If you reach age 65 or older, you have about 10 percent probability. If you reach age 85 or older, it can be as high as 50 percent.

You’ve written that stress and anxiety are linked to Alzheimer’s. What are the brain benefits of, say, meditation for stress reduction?
Tai chi, meditation, and breathing exercises not only improve mood and cognition but alter neurocircuits. If you look at functional MRI scans of people who meditate, you see the brain wires communicating differently compared with people who don’t.

Speaking of stress relief, you’re a big proponent of exercise.
Physical exercise is going to lower your risk for diabetes and hypertension. It gets your heart to pump oxygen and nutrients to your brain cells. Your body actually secretes something called BDNF—brain-derived neurotrophic factor—which is sort of a fertilizer for your brain cells. It causes your brain cells to sprout branches, or dendrites, so they communicate more effectively. You exercise, your body also produces endorphins, which improve mood and energy and help mental focus.

What about being overweight?
Being overweight doubles your risk for Alzheimer’s. If you’re obese, it quadruples your risk. The good news is that recent studies show that if you lose weight, your memory actually improves quite quickly.

If I’m not overweight, do I need to sweat my diet?
Good nutrition is going to help prevent diabetes. If you get diabetes, it doubles your risk for Alzheimer’s. A brain-healthy diet emphasizes omega-3 fats (which you get in fish, nuts, and flaxseed) while cutting down on the omega-6 fats from red meat and whole milk products, and it emphasizes antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, which fight oxidative stress that damages brain cells. The final element of diet is to try to cut back on the refined sugars and processed foods, which can increase risk for type 2 diabetes.

What’s your stance regarding alcohol?
Moderation. Most studies suggest one glass of alcohol per day for women and two for men as a guideline for the upper limit, depending on body size and tolerance. Some studies have shown that that level of alcohol consumption leads to better brain health compared with excess or abstinence. And why would that be? We don’t know. It could be that antioxidants in some alcoholic beverages protect the brain, or that having a glass of wine at dinner is relaxing and that stress reduction protects the brain.


Gary-Small-HeadshotGary Small, M.D.
He’s a professor of psychiatry and aging at the UCLA Semel Institute and director of the UCLA Longevity Center. He’s written The Memory Bible and The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program among other books.

November 2014 issue feature How to Live a Long Life in L.A.