We’ll just get the bad news out of the way first: “There is no way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease,” says Nancy Udelson, the executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association’s Cleveland Area Chapter.Before you toss in the towel (and stop reading), here’s the good news: There is plenty of evidence that if you stay active, eat a healthy diet with plenty of antioxidants and “good” fats and exercise regularly, you won’t develop the symptoms.QUIZ: How Active Are You?“We do autopsies on brains that definitely have Alzheimer’s, but the person never manifested the symptoms,” explains Paul Nussbaum, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist and the chairman of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Advisory Council for the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America.By way of explanation, he compares a healthy, active brain to a thickly forested jungle. If your brain resembles the Amazon, should Alzheimer’s cut down a few of the “trees” — aka brain cells — the symptoms may go unnoticed. On the other hand, if poor lifestyle habits have led your brain to look like a desert island, with a palm tree here and there, losing a single tree is going to make a big difference.

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Check out the offerings at your local community college, university extension or town’s continuing education program, and take a course in something you always wanted to explore but have never gotten around to.

“It’s possible to build up brain reserves in childhood and early adulthood so that later in life you have that ‘rain forest’ of a brain,” adds Mark Mapstone, PhD, of the University of Rochester Medical Center, who is a spokeman for the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. If you’re well past either life stage, there’s still a good way to build up reserves: Go back to school. The more education a person has, and the more mentally challenging his or her work, the lower the risk of developing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, Dr. Mapstone states.MORE: Brain Pills?Among the other ways you can add new trees to your brain forest to keep it lush and vibrant:Get Your Game OnScrabble, crossword puzzles, card games and chess are all brain builders. You’ve got to hold information in your mind to solve problems that arise during such games, and intellectually stimulating activities such as these spur the brain to produce new neurons and connections between brain cells. In fact, a recent study of adults 75 or older found that those who played cards and board games, did crossword puzzles and read also lowered their risk of dementia.Play with other people and you cut your risk even more: Researchers in Sweden found that older adults who participated in social activities reduced their risk of dementia by nearly half. Just Sit There“Americans have a hard time sitting quietly,” says Dr. Nussbaum. We fill every moment — too many moments, actually — with passive activities such as watching television and playing video games. He says that taking 30 minutes a day to just sit (with the TV off!) and think, pray or meditate ultimately helps boosts brain power. People who meditate strengthen the left prefrontal cortex of the brain, the part that is responsible for memory.Home in on a HobbyLearn French, Spanish, Russian or even sign language, pick up knitting, master the classical guitar or write your memoirs (you don’t even have to let anyone read them).  The benefit comes from “engaging in something novel,” says Dr. Nussbaum. If you don’t want to give up the hobbies that you love, and that you’re already good at, just look for ways to make your favorite pastimes more challenging. If you repeat the same activity, you’re operating on autopilot and not building new pathways (or planting new trees, to use Dr. Nussbaum’s brain forest metaphor) in your brain. Here, some ideas to spur your creativity:

  • Is knitting a favorite activity? Try to learn a new stitch every once in a while, and don’t just knit the same scarf for every person on your Christmas list. Challenge yourself with a sweater!
  • Like to build birdhouses? Sketch out different designs.
  • Crazy for quilting? Experiment with a variety of patterns.
  • Love jigsaw puzzles? Try doing an occasional puzzle facedown, which forces you to fit the pieces together using just the shapes.

—by Dana Sullivan