First, some good news: According to Marc D. London, M.D., chief of neurology at Montefiore Nyack Hospital, having a family history of Alzheimer’s does not mean you are destined to develop the disease. “Approximately 40–60 percent of Alzheimer’s cases have the APOE-4 gene. There is a test for that gene, but having the gene does not predict when and with any certainty whether you will get the illness,” explains Dr. London. “It’s considered a risk factor, but there are many other factors at play.”
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 60–80 percent of dementia cases. Although the majority of people with Alzheimer’s are age 65 and older, the illness is not a normal part of aging. In fact, the same healthy lifestyle that can ward off cardiovascular disease and aid in longevity is beneficial for brain health, too.
Dr. London says one of the main risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s is cerebrovascular disease (aka stroke). “Multiple small strokes increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. People who have diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure—all of which are influenced by diet, exercise, and smoking—are at increased risk of having stroke and indirectly of developing Alzheimer’s,” he explains.
Many experts have recently referred to Alzheimer’s as “type 3 diabetes.” The label implies a lifestyle connection considering that type 2 diabetes can be prevented and potentially reversed through weight loss, exercise, and adhering to a healthy diet. “Brain health is linked to heart health. A healthy diet decreases the risk of cardiovascular disease, which indirectly decreases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr. London, who recommends the Mediterranean diet for heart and brain health.
“The Mediterranean diet calls for consuming an abundance of whole grains, vegetables, leafy greens, nuts, beans, berries, poultry, fish, and olive oil while avoiding foods that are higher in saturated fats and trans fats, sugar, and ultra-processed foods,” says Sandra J. Arévalo, RDN, a registered dietician at Montefiore Nyack Hospital, who adds that multiple studies reveal that people who follow a Mediterranean diet have less risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, and live longer.
What else boosts brain health? Dr. London says regular exercise (everything that’s good for your heart is good for your brain) and keeping your mind engaged with puzzles, mind games, reading, and learning new topics.
A Typical Day on the Mediterranean Diet
Sandra J. Arévalo, RDN recommends the following menu as a general guideline:
A bowl of oatmeal with berries and almonds.
Avocado toast with a side of green leafy vegetables.
Grilled salmon, brown rice, asparagus, and a Greek salad (vegetarians can sub in chickpeas or other legumes for the salmon).