About 30 minutes of aerobic activity five days a week can lead to improvements in heart and brain health. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Don’t wait until you start seeing gray hairs to talk to your doctor about brain health and the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Starting in your 30s, improvements in diet and lifestyle can promote healthier brain development as you age—including a reduction in the risk of Alzheimer’s, according to new research.

Promoting a healthy increase in high-density lipoprotein, or HDL—the good cholesterol—and reducing high triglycerides and high glucose could help improve your odds, researchers found.

“At least as young as your mid 30s, we’re seeing a relationship between these factors and later brain health,” Carlos Rodriguez, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist with Spectrum Health, said. “That’s the message: We need to start working on this sooner than later.”

The long game

This isn’t the first study to find diet can affect brain health.

But what’s novel about the recent findings is that researchers began following participants in the 1970s, tracking some as long as four decades, Dr. Rodriguez said.

They added new groups along the way.

With each cohort, every four years they looked at vascular risk factors like cholesterol, triglycerides, and glucose levels. As the participants aged, researchers screened them for cognitive difficulties.

“The new finding is that we’re seeing an association between these vascular factors—as early as age 35—and the development of Alzheimer’s disease decades later,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “It really starts to reframe the discussion of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia to look at it as a life-course disease.

“You have to look at factors throughout a person’s life to understand the condition.”

Researchers found an increase in HDL in early or middle adulthood could reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by more than 15 percent, according to the study. For those in their 50s, meanwhile, an increase in glucose levels is linked to a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

Good cholesterol can help reduce the accumulation of amyloid beta, proteins that clump together to form plaques on the brain.

“The more plaques a person has, the more likely they are to develop Alzheimer’s,” Dr. Rodriguez said.

Young and middle-aged people can reduce their risk by embracing a balanced diet. Choose fruits, whole grains, nuts, fish and vegetables. Limit red meats, processed foods, added sugars and sweet treats.

Regular exercise also plays a role.

About 30 minutes of aerobic activity five days a week can lead to improvements in heart and brain health.

“Heart health really equals brain health in the long run,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “The earlier we start the stronger the effect may be on brain health.”

Learn your lipids

While the impact may be greatest for people in their 30s, those in their 40s and 50s can take heart. It’s never too late to take steps that improve brain health.

Having regular lab work done amid your annual physical can help pinpoint steps patients can take to improve their brain health down the road.

Dr. Rodriguez recommends young and middle-aged adults ask their primary care provider to unpack their lab results.

“I would pay a lot more attention to these values in discussions with your primary care doctor, asking them, ‘Where do I stand in terms of cholesterol and blood glucose levels?’” he said.

Armed with that information, patients can be proactive about their brain health.