5 Healthy Habits That Can Cut Your Risk of Alzheimer's

Research-backed tips to protect your brain.

June 13, 2014— -- intro: Diseases that limit our ability to interact with family and friends are particularly difficult. That's what makes Alzheimer's such a devastating disease. Alzheimer's is the most common cause of dementia, a term that describes a set of symptoms which can include loss of memory, mood changes, and problems with communication and reasoning.

More than 5 million Americans are estimated to have Alzheimer’s disease — a number that’s expect to nearly triple by 2050 if there are no significant medical breakthroughs, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Scientists don't yet fully understand what causes Alzheimer's disease. Genes play an important role in its development, but there’s new research to suggest that belly fat, too, puts middle-aged people at an increased risk. According to researchers at Rush University Medical Center, the protein responsible for metabolizing fat in the liver is the same protein found in the part of the brain that controls memory and learning. People with higher abdominal fat actually have depleted this fat metabolizing protein, making them 3.6 times as likely to suffer from memory loss and dementia later in life.

How can you Eat It to Beat It? You can help to reduce dangerous belly fat and reduce your risk of Alzheimer's with a healthy diet and regular exercise, and you can also consider these research-suggested tips:

quicklist: 1

title: Be patriotic

text: Here's one more reason to support your local farmers and buy organic produce: researchers say exposure to DDT -- a toxin banned in the United States since 1972 but still used as a pesticide in other countries -- may increase the risk and severity of Alzheimer's disease, particularly in those over the age of 60.

In a study published in JAMA Neurology, Rutgers scientists discovered that levels of DDE, the chemical compound left when DDT breaks down, were four times higher in the blood of Alzheimer's disease patients compared to those without the disease. People may be exposed to the toxic pesticide by consuming imported fruits, vegetables and grains where DDT is still being used and eating fish from contaminated waterways. Just one more reason to buy local and organic!

quicklist: 2

title: Make midlife matter most

text: If there's one time where diet matters most to preventing your risk of Alzheimer's, midlife is it.

A recent doctoral thesis—the first ever to investigate the relationship between a healthy diet in midlife and the risk of developing dementia later on—suggests making the healthiest dietary choices in your 50s may reduce your risk of dementia years later by almost 90 percent! A Mediterranean diet, one rich in vegetables, berries and fruits, fish and unsaturated fats from nuts, proved to be particularly beneficial. According to researchers, even those who are genetically susceptible to Alzheimer's can at least delay the onset of the disease by reducing intake of saturated fat typical of meat and dairy.

quicklist: 3

title: Learn another language

text: Parlez vous Francais?

A recent study published in the journal Neurology shows that speaking a second language may delay the onset of three types of dementia. The study found that people who spoke two languages developed dementia four and a half years later than people who only spoke one language.

Speaking more than one language is thought to lead to better development of the areas of the brain that handle executive functions and attention tasks, which may help protect from the onset of dementia.

quicklist: 4

title: Read and rest (but not too much)

text: Use it or lose it.

That seems to be true of proper cognitive function, according to a recent study carried out by a team of researchers in Spain. Their findings show that keeping the brain stimulated, and sleeping just long enough for the mind and body to recoup for another day, is the sweet spot for cognitive development.

Sleeping more than 8 hours and less than 6, and the lack of cognitive stimulation such as reading, was associated with an increased risk of cognitive impairment by 2.6 times in people over 65, according to the study in the journal Revista de Investigación Clínica. So set your alarm clock, hit the library for some good reads, and take a stab at the crossword every now and then!

quicklist: 5

title: Feed your hungry, hungry hippocampus

text: Did you know your brain shrinks as you age? Most susceptible to atrophy is the hippocampus, a part of the brain responsible for memory and spatial reasoning, and the region first attacked by Alzheimer's disease. But recent studies suggest you can prevent atrophy and delay the onset of cognitive decline by feeding your hippocampus—with exercise.

Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Public Health tracked four groups of healthy older adults ages 65-89, who had normal cognitive abilities, over an 18-month period. The groups were classified both for low or high Alzheimer's risk (based on gene expression) and for low or high physical activity levels. Of all four groups studied, only those at high genetic risk for Alzheimer's who did not exercise experienced a decrease in hippocampal volume (3 percent). The movers though, even those at high risk for Alzheimer's, maintained brain volume.

Dave Zinczenko, ABC News nutrition and wellness editor, is a New York Times No. 1 bestselling author. His latest book, "Eat It to Beat It," is full of food swaps, meal plans and the latest food controversies. Sign up here for his free newsletter now!