Alzheimer’s disease hits women hard — we’re twice as likely to develop it as men. And it’s only rarely linked to genetic causes. That means we can take steps now to reduce the likelihood we’ll develop Alzheimer’s as we age.
Lisa Mosconi, associate director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College, has dedicated her career to researching women’s brains.
In her latest book, The XX Brain: The Groundbreaking Science Empowering Women to Maximize Cognitive Health and Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease, she shares the evidenced-based strategies women can follow to reduce the risk of dementia. Here are three top steps you can take.
1. Improve your sleep
“Sleep is so important for health overall, and we don’t get enough as a society,” Mosconi says. Women have a harder time falling asleep, and a harder time staying asleep, than men do. And a lack of sleep is linked to a long list of health problems, including cognitive decline and dementia.
She acknowledges the struggles behind getting a good night’s sleep: “It’s really hard to make sleep great, but there are things you can do.”
Job one is to figure out what’s behind your difficulty sleeping. For many women, the hormonal swings of perimenopause can disrupt sleep, and can go on for years. “Some people would really benefit from having their hormone levels tested,” Mosconi says.
Some women have low levels of progesterone, so progesterone lotions can help. Mosconi says that taking 750 milligrams of vitamin C daily for a few months can also help women with poor sleep that’s triggered by low progesterone levels.
She says that red clover can help women who struggle to sleep because of night sweats or hot flashes. In fact, she’s so bullish about red clover that she chose the flowers to illustrate the cover of her book. She says women see results with 80 milligrams a day for three to four months, and taking it in combination with vitamin E can boost effectiveness.
2. Get your stress under control
“Stress is a major driver of most chronic health conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease and dementia,” Mosconi says. “We tend to underestimate how much stress can affect our health and our brains, and that’s especially the case for women.”
A study published in Neurology examined more than 2,000 people in middle age and found that high stress levels could explain memory loss and brain shrinkage, and effects were particularly strong for women.
“It’s important to address stress, and we’re all guilty of putting if off as a bad day and thinking tomorrow will be better. But tomorrow will not be better unless you take steps,” Mosconi says.
As with solving sleep problems, controlling your stress levels starts with identifying what’s causing your stress.
Taking breaks from stressors, like turning your phone off at night and spending more time in nature, can also help.
For women, connecting with friends and family can help lower stress, Mosconi says: “Women seem to react best to stress when they can reach out to friends for support. So many women are too overwhelmed to ask for help, but it’s such an important thing to cultivate and practice.”
3. Look at what you eat
Mosconi focused her first book, Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power, on the link between diet and cognitive health. She recommends the Mediterranean diet to help cut your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia as you age.
Reach for fatty fish, greens, high-fiber veggies, fruits that aren’t too sweet, complex carbs and legumes.
Choosing a healthy diet will feed your microbiome, too. Mosconi says people whose diets are high in fiber and low in animal fat have the healthiest microbiomes. And cognitive performance is lower in people who don’t have enough variety of good bacteria in their microbiome.