Skip to main content

The role lifestyle plays in brain health and Alzheimer’s disease risk

Written By: Vicki Powers, UT Physicians | Updated: March 13, 2024
Couple walking the dog in a park for exercise

Physical activity impacts brain health and reduces your chance of developing Alzheimer's disease. This movement can be as simple as walking your dog.

Making “deposits” into a healthy brain can pay dividends down the road, just like investing in your retirement account. New research released in 2024 reveals a healthy lifestyle may offset cognitive decline, even in people with dementia.

“We’re making progress on neurodegenerative diseases, but we haven’t cured them yet. So, everything we can do to add to what we’ve currently got is a big bonus and a blessing,” said Paul E. Schulz, MD, a neurologist with UTHealth Houston Neurosciences and professor and Rick McCord Professor in Neurology, and Umphrey Family Professor in Neurodegenerative Diseases with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston.

The power of changing your lifestyle

Paul E. Schulz, MD - Neurologist Studying Brain Health And Neurodegenerative Diseases like Alzheimer's
Paul E. Schulz, MD

Lifestyle modifications correlate to about a 50% reduction in the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, according to Schulz. That’s huge, he said, because many of the lifestyle factors for dementia are the same as for cardiovascular disease.

“If I can get my patients to exercise more, eat less, and have a better diet, then not only does it help their brain, but they’re also less likely to have heart disease, stroke, and some cancers too,” Schulz said.

Heart disease, cancer, and stroke are the top three killers in the United States, he said, with Alzheimer’s usually ranking sixth.

“Lifestyle factors dramatically affect four of the top six diseases that are the major sources of us losing people in the United States. And it’s just lifestyle stuff,” Schulz said. “So, diet and controlling these risk factors is vital.”

Making lifestyle changes, if needed, is one strategy to impact the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease in the future. The number of Americans living with it is projected to double to nearly 13 million by 2050.

Taking action for brain health

What can you do today? A 2023 brain health study demonstrates focusing positively on six areas provides an improvement in neurocognitive decline. These include:

  • Physical activity
  • Plant-based nutrition
  • Restorative sleep
  • Stress management
  • Avoidance of risky substances
  • Social connections

The overall message emphasizes the importance of prevention.

“The more physical exercise you get, the less likely you are to get Alzheimer’s – and the slower it’s likely to progress,” Schulz said. “Physical exercise seems to affect the cognitive functions in the whole brain, while mental exercise is more specific and affects whatever you’re exercising, such as attention span or memory.”

The latest physical activity guidelines recommend adults get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity and two days of muscle-strengthening activity per week. This could be brisk walking for 30 minutes, five days a week. Schulz describes one of his patients who walks her dog for 20 minutes, three times a day. This significantly contributes to her physical activity goal.

“She ends up getting an hour of physical exercise, seven days a week,” Schulz said. “I told her that may be why we’re seeing her now and not five or 10 years ago.”

For substantial health benefits, the recommendation is 150 to 300 minutes per week. As always, it’s best to check with your physician if you have heart disease or other health risks.

It’s not too late to change your lifestyle

One of the most important takeaways is it’s not too late to start focusing on brain health and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Actions every day can add up – as a positive or negative outcome.

“It is never too early and never too late in the life course for dementia prevention,” according to a 2020 report by The Lancet Commission on dementia prevention and intervention.

Schulz agrees that it’s never too late. And it doesn’t require starting at age 40 to make an impact. In one of his studies, for example, people in their 60s showed a dramatic difference in developing dementia, in just two years, by taking certain cholesterol-lowering medications that reduced the risk.

“Even if you start with a group that’s already at a high risk of getting brain disease and neurodegenerative disease, the answer is yes,” Schulz said.

As the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, UT Physicians has locations across the Greater Houston area to serve the community. To schedule an appointment, call 888-4UT-DOCS.