Mission Possible: Stopping Alzheimer’s in its Tracks
Renowned Neurologist and Researcher Provides Tips on Maintaining Brain Health
For Richard S. Isaacson, M.D., an internationally renowned neurologist and researcher, Alzheimer’s disease is personal. While he was in high school, his uncle was diagnosed with the disease and later, his cousin. Now, as the number of Americans with Alzheimer’s and related dementias rapidly escalates, Isaacson said he’s intensely focused on applying a comprehensive approach toward both the prevention of Alzheimer’s and, more recently, Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia.
As director of the new Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic in the FAU Center for Brain Health, launched through the support of the Harry T. Mangurian Jr. Foundation, Isaacson uses a science-based approach to stop neurodegenerative diseases early in their tracks.
His mission? To identify patients at risk who do not yet have any cognitive decline or other clinical complaints, and design personalized prevention strategies to delay or possibly prevent the onset of these diseases.
Isaacson’s method for tackling these devastating diseases provides hope amid many disappointments in drug therapies and other treatment trials over many decades.
Here’s a look at Isaacson’s tips to keep brains healthy.
Q: Is it really possible to slow down or prevent Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementias?
A: Most people are unaware that Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias begin in the brain 20 to 30 years before that first symptom of cognitive decline and memory loss. This leaves ample time to make brain-healthy choices to reduce risk and protect against cognitive decline. About 40 percent of cases of dementia may be preventable based on modifiable risk factors, which is why lifestyle and brain-healthy choices are so important.
Q: Does what you eat affect your brain health?
A: We know how to keep our hearts healthy with lifestyle changes, but what many people don’t realize is that you are what you eat when it comes to brain health. The best diet for your brain is the Mediterranean diet, which provides a lot of leafy greens, whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains in moderation, lean protein, fatty fish such as salmon, and healthy fats from nuts, seeds and olive oil.
Q: Can I still consume alcoholic beverages and maintain brain health?
A: The science behind alcohol and Alzheimer’s is still evolving, but in my clinical practice I advise that less is more. For women, no more than four to seven servings per week. For men, no more than seven to 10 servings per week. Moderation is essential, and when you’re unsure, no or minimal alcohol may be the safest bet.
Q: In addition to a healthy diet, do I also need to exercise?
A: You should aim to exercise at least three or four times a week for a minimum total of 150 minutes and combine aerobic workouts and resistance/weight training. Aerobic exercise, and in particular, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), helps burn fat, while weight training builds muscle, which boosts your metabolism. It’s important to keep in mind that as the belly size gets larger, the memory center in the brain gets smaller. Exercise can help reduce body fat and be the brain’s first defense against amyloid plaque, the harmful sticky substance that builds in the brain of a person with Alzheimer’s. In my practice, I personally tailor exercise programs based on a person’s body fat percentage, percentage of lean muscle mass, vascular/metabolic risk factors and cognitive function, and often suggest an eventual target of five to six sessions a week.
Q: How many hours of sleep is optimal for brain health?
A: Impaired sleep has been associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Evidence shows that quality sleep plays a role in clearing damaging beta-amyloid out of the brain. Most need at least 7.5 hours of sleep every night and you must turn off electronics, like your smartphone and computer, at least an hour before going to bed. Make sure to have a quiet, dark room. The bright blue light from screens can disrupt your circadian rhythm and keep you from producing melatonin, a vital sleep hormone.
Q: Do games like Wordle and crossword puzzles exercise my brain?
A: The important thing is to use your mind often. Activities like Wordle and puzzles are fine as long as you are continuously working on using different parts of your brain. To do that, learn a new skill or take up a new hobby. Learning something new, like a new language, helps to build vital pathways in the brain and stimulates and challenges your mind. There also is a growing body of research on the many benefits of music on the brain. While listening to music may have some benefits, playing it or singing is even better.
Q: What other lifestyle tips are important for maintaining a healthy brain?
A: Managing vascular risk factors, such as high blood pressure (goal 120s/70s or below), high cholesterol and elevated blood sugar, is also essential. Regardless, if I’m talking to a patient, or even giving advice to a cardiovascular surgeon (like Dr. Mehmet Oz), I emphasize that having “borderline” high yet untreated risk factors for cognitive decline is not ideal for brain health. As such, my targets have evolved to focus on optimal levels rather than a wide range of “normal.” It’s also important to connect with people regularly, which has been especially challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic. For decades, studies have shown that maintaining social connections and relationships helps stimulate the brain and may slow cognitive decline.
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Did You Know?
Richard S. Isaacson, M.D., is the director of the new Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic in the FAU Center for Brain Health, within the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine. It supports basic research, clinical care, education and outreach, with plans to expand the clinical team to begin seeing patients this summer.
His approach for optimizing cognitive function and reducing risk of dementia is available to the public via a free online course called “Mastering Brain Health,” accessible at faumedicine.org/alz/course/.