Childhood Trauma Raises Your Risk of Alzheimer’s. Here’s What May Prevent It.

Childhood Trauma Raises Your Risk of Alzheimer’s. Here’s What May Prevent It.

You may know that childhood trauma is linked to an increased risk of cancer, heart disease and other serious diseases. But did you know it can dramatically raise your risk of Alzheimer’s disease?

You are 11.2 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia if you have four or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) such as abuse, neglect or parental divorce than people with no ACEs, according to a recent study from the Center for Youth Wellness.

Finding out you have an increased risk of Alzheimer’s can be alarming, especially if you’ve lost a parent or another loved one to the devastating brain disease. But knowledge can be power: Armed with the awareness of a higher-than-normal risk of Alzheimers,  you can change your lifestyle and take steps to prevent or delay the disease.

“As it turns out, the solution for Alzheimer’s has been hiding in plain sight,” say Loma Linda University neurologists Dean and Ayesha Sherzai in their book The Alzheimers’ Solution.

Dr. Dean Sherzai is a researcher and co-director (with Ayesha) of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Program at Loma Linda University Medical Center in California. “There’s a false belief that Alzheimer’s is simply genetic, but in reality, we are bringing it into our households by the choices we make and the foods we eat every day,” he told reporters.

The Sherzais are both neurologists at Loma Linda University Medical Center and co-directors of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Center there. Credit: Team Sherzai, MD

“We know now that Alzheimer’s and overall cognitive health are deeply influenced by five main lifestyle factors,” explains the Sherzais in their book, which states there are direct links to Alzheimer’s and “poor nutrition, lack of exercise, chronic stress, poor sleep, and the extent to which we challenge our brains.”

Based on their years of research at Loma Linda University, the husband-and-wife research team argue that a full 90% of Alzheimer’s cases could be prevented by lifestyle changes, and the genetically based cases delayed by 10 to 15 years.

Their bottom line: Science can’t prevent every case of Alzheimer’s, but you can take steps to dramatically reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s, and to even delay the progress of Alzheimer’s if you do get it.

What you can do

Here are science-based strategies advocated by the Sherzais and some other leading Alzheimer’s researchers:

Switch from processed foods to a whole foods, plant-based diet. Switching to a mostly plant-based diet – even during old age – can slow and possibly even reverse some memory loss, according to research published in the Alzheimer’ and Dementia journal. A Johns Hopkins report recommended the Mediterranean diet, which is heavy on fruits and vegetables, fish, and “good fats,” including those found in olive oil, nuts, and avocados. Other studies have found eating at least one serving of fish a week lowers Alzheimer’s risk by 60%.

The husband-and-wife Sherzai research team advocates a whole foods, plant-based diet for brain health.

You got to move it, move it. Current wisdom “is 150 minutes of aerobic exercise a week, plus several sessions of strength training, but the benefits of even mild exercise begin to accrue right away,” writes Dharma Singh Khalsa, MD, director of the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Fund, in a 2017 article in Cerebrum.  He and neurobiologist George Perry note that a Columbia University study found that older men who walked on treadmills for 30 minutes four times a week grew new cells in a part of the brain related to memory, cognition, and planning.

The National Institute on Aging says research on exercise and Alzheimer’s prevention is “encouraging but inconclusive,” but adds that regular physical activity is definitely part of healthy aging. And when it comes to evidence connecting lifestyle changes to keeping the brain healthy, “physical activity would probably be the strongest,” Dr. Heather Snyder of the Alzheimer’s Association has said.

Take daily walks. At least one study has suggested that walking at least 6 miles a week can help prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s, and another found that people with mild Alzheimer’s were able to preserve their brain’s key memory and learning center by walking 5 miles a week over a 10-year period. Even a little exercise can go a long way: Another study suggests exercising even a few times a week may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, especially among those with a high genetic risk (that is, those who carry a gene nicknamed “e4”).  

Manage chronic disease. High blood pressure and diabetes significantly raise the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, so avoiding or managing those conditions is important, according to Snyder, who directs medical and scientific operations for the Alzheimer’s Association.

Unwind and restore. When things get stressful, the Sherzais advise that you relax with mindfulness techniques such as meditation, yoga, and mindful breathing, then restore yourself by spending time in nature, getting 7 to 8 hours of “detoxifying” restorative sleep, and enjoying the support of strong friends and communities. At least one study has found that friends are as important to your health as diet and exercise, and another has found freestyle dancing particularly effective for lowering the risk of Alzheimer’s.

Dish up some curry. Lab-based studies have shown that curcumin, an extract of turmeric, breaks down amyloid-beta plaques mucking up the brain – a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. The jury is still out on turmeric and Alzheimer’s prevention, but given its strong anti-amyloid properties, the Sherzais recommend adding more turmeric to your diet. (People with liver or drinking problems should avoid turmeric products, and always talk with your doctor before using supplements.)


Alcohol Abuse Amongst The Elderly: A Complete Guide. National Council on Aging. (Some evidence suggests that heavy drinking is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s).

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Photos of elders courtesy of Shutterstock