Aussie actor Chris Hemsworth has revealed he’s taking some time off work to spend with his family and invest in his health after learning of his elevated risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Here’s what you need to know about the condition and whether you should take a leaf out of the megastar’s book.
After genetic testing during his new documentary, Limitless, Hemsworth uncovered some dark news around his genetic predisposition for Alzheimer’s disease. The tests revealed the 39-year-old Thor actor is facing a risk of up to 10 times that of the general population. It comes down to his possession of 2 copies of a gene known as APOE4, from both parents, which is a known risk factor for Alzheimer’s. Hemsworth is staying positive and has decided to take some time off work to fight the odds, telling Vanity Fair, “it’s not like I’ve been handed my resignation.”
And he’s right – there are a number of lifestyle factors that contribute to the development of the disease. We’ll be unpacking what’s in your control when it comes to reducing the risk, along with what the disease actually encompasses.
What is Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive condition which involves cognitive degeneration and is characterised by a number of memory and learning-related symptoms. These may include:
- Memory loss
- Difficulty with problem solving
- Difficulty with tasks that were once simple
- Confusion with time and location
- Difficulty understanding spatial relationships
- Difficulty speaking and writing
Alzheimer’s is believed to be caused by an abnormal build-up of proteins in and around the brain cells. Proteins like amyloid and tau create plaque deposits, creating what are known as neurofibrillary tangles in our brain cells. This then disturbs the communication between our neurons, leading to cognitive degeneration. While there isn’t a certain answer for why all these changes happen, researchers have reason to believe chronic inflammation is one of the big contributors. One of the key sources of inflammation in our lives comes through our lifestyle choices – that’s why we’ll be taking a look at a few of the simple ways to reduce your risk for inflammation and Alzheimer’s disease.
Considering stress – and the subsequent release of the stress hormone known as cortisol – is massive contributor to Alzheimer’s, Hemsworth has a good idea in taking some time off work. This is because stress, along with poor diet and lifestyle choices contribute to chronic inflammation, which is one of the major contributors to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Added sugars are one of the biggest dietary dangers leading to cognitive degeneration, and our collective sugar habits are not putting us in the best position, especially considering the average Aussie is downing 17 teaspoons of the stuff a day – nearly 3 times the 6-teaspoon limit for women and just under half the 9-teaspoon limit for men recommended by the World Health Organisation.
When we consume too much sugar, we throw our microbiome out of whack – this means the trillions of microbes responsible for our health can lean in favour of bad bacteria. Excess sugar causes negative changes to the bacteria populations, with research finding high-sugar diets can lower microbial diversity and create higher levels of Proteobacteria, which is an indicator of an unbalanced microbiome. The result is inflammation and diseases like Alzheimer’s. So, try to avoid added sugars in the following foods:
- Highly-processed staples like breads and cereals
- Snacks like chips and crackers
- Confectionery, junk food and fast food
- Commercially-baked goods
- Flavoured yoghurt
- Highly-processed sauces and dips
Enjoying an anti-inflammatory diet is one of the simplest ways to reduce your chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
You’ll want to opt for minimally-processed foods with antioxidants and brain-boosting nutrients. These will include the following:
- Whole fruit and veggies: Fresh produce is loaded with fibre, vitamins and minerals to fight inflammation. Leafy greens are rich in antioxidants which have been proven to prevent oxidative stress, which is a known contributor to the development of inflammation and, by extension, Alzheimer’s.
- Whole grains: Minimally-processed whole grains tend to be far more nutrient dense than their processed counterparts. Their fibre content aids gut health and reduces the risk of chronic inflammation, thereby warding off cognitive decline.
- Nuts and seeds: The healthy fats, magnesium and B vitamins in nuts and seeds are known brain-boosters, so be sure to enjoy a handful every now and again.
- Fermented foods: These are essential for keeping our gut microbiome in order – the good bacteria in fermented foods helps tip the balance in our favour, thereby reducing our risk for infection and inflammation. Foods like yoghurt, sauerkraut and natto are all good options.
- Healthy fats: Essential fatty acids like omega 3 play a major role in preventing inflammation. Linoleic acid and monounsaturated fats found in olive oil and walnuts are healthy fats which keep our body functioning properly. In fact, monounsaturated fats are known for fighting inflammation. These fats not only reduce our risk of cognitive decline, but help reduce bad (LDL) cholesterol levels, along with lowering the risk of heart disease.
It’s also worth dropping that smoking habit. This addictive habit is a major contributor to cognitive decline, with the World Health Organisation suggesting it could be responsible for 14% of dementia cases across the globe. One study ranked smoking as the third largest modifiable risk factor for dementia, while another piece of research indicated that smokers had a 30% higher likelihood of developing dementia and a 40% higher likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s. It’s worth noting that the above risks that come with smoking, like high blood pressure and strokes, are associated with a higher risk of developing dementia. The toxins in the smoke contribute to inflammation and result in oxidative stress in the body, which is one of the major reasons the habit can cause Alzheimer’s.
Consuming too much alcohol is another risk factor as well. While the occasional glass of red is fine, and some studies show its antioxidant content may even provide anti-inflammatory benefits, you probably won’t want to be throwing back alcoholic beverages too often. Over time, excess consumption can damage your brain cells, leaving you with a heavily reduced amount of white matter in the brain, and this white matter plays an essential role in signal transmission in the brain. Without an adequate amount of this matter, we become susceptible to a number of brain-related issues.
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