For many years, we’ve been told that there’s little we can do to prevent Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. All we can do, this line of thinking goes, is hope for the best as we age and wait for a pharmaceutical cure. But the truth is much more encouraging.
New research reveals that lifestyle factors play a significant role in protecting your brain as you age. You can reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias by eating right, exercising, staying mentally and socially active, and keeping stress in check. By leading a brain-healthy lifestyle, you may even be able to prevent the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease entirely and slow down, or even reverse, the deterioration of aging.
Lifestyle choices can protect your brain
Researchers across the world are racing towards a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. But as prevalence rates climb, their focus has broadened from treatment to prevention strategies. What they’ve discovered is that it may be possible to prevent or delay the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias through a combination of healthful habits.
There are steps you can take to keep your brain healthy as you age. It’s never too early to start boosting your brain reserves, so what are you waiting for? Take action today!
The 6 pillars of a brain-healthy lifestyle
The health of your brain, like the health of your body, depends on many factors.
While some factors, such as your genes, are out of your control, many powerful lifestyle factors are within your sphere of influence.
The six pillars of a brain-healthy lifestyle are:
- Regular exercise
- Healthy diet
- Mental stimulation
- Quality sleep
- Stress management
- An active social life
The more you strengthen each of the six pillars in your daily life, the healthier and hardier your brain will be.
When you lead a brain-healthy lifestyle, your brain will stay working stronger…longer.
Alzheimer’s & dementia prevention pillar #1: Regular exercise
The benefits of exercise
In addition to protecting against Alzheimer’s and dementia, regular exercise:
- Reduces stress
- Boosts mood
- Improves memory
- Increases energy
According to the Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation, physical exercise reduces your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by 50 percent.
Regular exercise can also slow further deterioration in those who have already started to develop cognitive problems.
If you’ve been inactive for a while, starting an exercise program can be intimidating. But you don’t have to take up jogging or sign up for a gym membership. Look for small ways to add more movement into your day. Park at the far end of the parking lot, take the stairs, carry your own groceries, or walk around the block or pace while talking on your cell phone.
Tips for getting started and sticking with your exercise plan:
- Aim for at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise five times per week. Try walking, swimming, or any other activity that gets your heart rate up. Even routine activities such as gardening, cleaning, or doing laundry count as exercise.
- Build muscle to pump up your brain. Moderate levels of weight and resistance training not only increase muscle mass, they help you maintain brain health. Combining aerobics and strength training is better than either activity alone. For those over 65, adding 2-3 strength sessions to your weekly routine may cut your risk of Alzheimer’s in half.
- Include balance and coordination exercises. Head injuries from falls are an increasing risk as you grow older, which in turn increase your risk for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Balance and coordination exercises can help you stay agile and avoid spills. Try yoga, Tai Chi, or exercises using balance discs or balance balls.
- Stick with it for a month. It takes approximately 28 days for a new routine to become habit. Once you’re over this hump, keeping up your exercise routine will feel natural. In the meantime, write realistic goals on a workout calendar and post it on the fridge. Build in frequent rewards, and within no time, the feel-good endorphins from regular exercise will help you forget the remote…and head out the door.
- Protect your head. Studies suggest that head trauma at any point in life significantly increases your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. This includes repeated hits in sports activities such as football, soccer, and boxing, or one-time injuries from a bicycle, skating, or motorcycle accident. Protect your brain by wearing properly fitting sports helmets, buckling your seatbelt, and trip-proofing your environment. Avoid activities that compete for your attention—like talking on your cell while driving or listening to music while running. A moment’s distraction can lead to a brain-injuring thud!
Ready to get moving?
If you are even thinking about ways to fit exercise into your bursting-at-the-seams schedule, you are on the right track. No matter your age, your health, or your fitness level, you can benefit from moving more. Whether you are generally healthy or are managing an illness, there are big and small ways to get more active and boost your fitness level.
Alzheimer’s & dementia prevention pillar #2: Healthy diet
Just like the rest of your body, your brain needs a nutritious diet to operate at its best. Focus on eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats.
Eating habits that reduce inflammation and provide a steady supply of fuel are best. These food tips will keep you protected:
- Follow a Mediterranean diet. Eating a heart-healthy Mediterranean diet rich in fish, nuts, whole grains, olive oil, and abundant fresh produce. Treat yourself to the occasional glass of red wine and square of dark chocolate.
- Avoid trans fats and saturated fats. Reduce your consumption by avoiding full-fat dairy products, red meat, fast food, fried foods, and packaged and processed foods.
- Get plenty of omega-3 fats. Evidence suggests that omega-3 fatty acids may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Food sources include cold-water fish such as salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel, and sardines. You can also supplement with fish oil.
- Eat 4-6 small meals throughout the day, rather than 3 large meals. Eating at regular intervals helps to maintain consistent blood sugar levels. Also avoid refined carbohydrates high in sugar and white flour, which rapidly spike glucose levels and inflame your brain.
- Eat across the rainbow. Emphasize fruits and vegetables across the color spectrum to maximize protective antioxidants and vitamins. Daily servings of berries and green leafy vegetables should be part of your brain-protective regimen.
- Enjoy daily cups of tea. Green, white, and oolong teas are particularly brain healthy. Drinking 2-4 cups daily has proven benefits. Although not as powerful as tea, coffee also confers brain benefits.
Reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s by giving up smoking and drinking only in moderation
Smoking and heavy drinking are two of the most preventable risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. Not only does smoking increase the odds for those over 65 by nearly 79 percent, researchers at Miami’s Mt. Sinai Medical Center warn that a combination of these two behaviors reduces the age of Alzheimer’s onset by six to seven years.
When you stop smoking, the brain benefits from improved circulation almost immediately, no matter your age. However, brain changes from alcohol abuse can only be reversed in their early stages.
What about supplements?
Folic acid, vitamin B12, vitamin D, magnesium, and fish oil are believed to preserve and improve brain health. Studies of vitamin E, gingko biloba, coenzyme Q10, and turmeric have yielded less conclusive results, but may also be beneficial in the prevention or delay of Alzheimer’s and dementia symptoms.
Talk to your doctor about medication interactions, and review current literature to make a personal decision about the costs and benefits of dietary supplements.
What’s good for the heart is good for the brain
Evidence suggests that by reducing your risk of heart disease, you also lower your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The following diet plans can help:
Alzheimer’s & dementia prevention pillar #3: Mental stimulation
Those who continue learning new things throughout life and challenging their brains are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, so make it a point to stay mentally active. In essence, you need to “use it or lose it.”
Activities involving multiple tasks or requiring communication, interaction, and organization offer the greatest protection. Set aside time each day to stimulate your brain. Cross-training with these brain-boosting activities will help keep you mentally sharp:
- Learn something new. Study a foreign language, learn sign language, practice a musical instrument, read the newspaper or a good book, or take up a new hobby. The greater the novelty and challenge, the larger the deposit in your brain reserves.
- Practice memorization. Start with something short, progressing to something a little more involved, such as the 50 U.S. state capitals. Create rhymes and patterns to strengthen your memory connections.
- Enjoy strategy games, puzzles, and riddles. Brain teasers and strategy games provide a great mental workout and build your capacity to form and retain cognitive associations. Do a crossword puzzle, play board games or cards, or work word and number games, such as Scrabble or Sudoku.
- Practice the 5 W’s. Observe and report like a crime detective. Keep a “Who, What, Where, When, and Why” list of your daily experiences. Capturing visual details keeps your neurons firing.
- Follow the road less traveled. Take a new route, eat with your non-dominant hand, rearrange your computer file system. Vary your habits regularly to create new brain pathways.
To learn more about maximizing your brainpower, read Improving Your Memory.
Alzheimer’s & dementia prevention pillar #4: Quality sleep
Your brain needs regular, restful sleep in order to function at optimum capacity. Sleep deprivation not only leaves you cranky and tired, but impairs your ability to think, problem-solve, and process, store, and recall information. Deep, dreamy sleep is critical for memory formation and retention. If nightly sleep deprivation is slowing your thinking and affecting your mood, you may be at greater risk of developing symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. The vast majority of adults need at least 8 hours of sleep per night. Any less, and productivity and creativity suffers.
To learn more, see How Much Sleep Do You Need?
Tips to help you combat insomnia and catch up on your Z’s
- Establish a regular sleep schedule. Going to bed and getting up at the same time reinforces your natural circadian rhythms. Your brain’s clock responds to regularity.
- Be smart about napping. While taking a nap can be a great way to recharge, especially for older adults, it can make insomnia worse. If insomnia is a problem for you, consider eliminating napping. If you must nap, do it in the early afternoon, and limit it to thirty minutes.
- Set the mood. Reserve your bed for sleep and sex, and ban television and computers from the bedroom (both are stimulating and may lead to difficulties falling asleep).
- Create a relaxing bedtime ritual. Take a hot bath, do some light stretches, write in your journal, or dim the lights. As it becomes habit, your nightly ritual will send a powerful signal to your brain that it’s time for deep restorative sleep.
- Quiet your inner chatter. When stress, anxiety, or negative internal dialogues keep you awake, get out of bed. Try reading or relaxing in another room for twenty minutes then hop back in.
Alzheimer’s & dementia prevention #5: Stress management
Stress that is chronic or severe takes a heavy toll on the brain, leading to shrinkage in a key memory area of the brain known as the hippocampus, hampering nerve cell growth, and increasing your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Yet simple daily tools can minimize its harmful effects.
Get your stress levels in check with these proven techniques
- Breathe! Stress alters your breathing rate and impacts oxygen levels in the brain. Quiet your stress response with deep, abdominal breathing. Restorative breathing is powerful, simple, and free!
- Schedule daily relaxation activities. Keeping stress under control requires regular effort. Make relaxation a priority, whether it’s a walk in the park, playtime with your dog, yoga, or a soothing bath.
- Nourish inner peace. Most scientists acknowledge a strong mind-body connection, and various studies associate spirituality with better brain health. Regular meditation, prayer, reflection, and religious practice may immunize you against the damaging effects of stress.
To learn more, see Relaxation Techniques for Stress Relief: Relaxation Exercises and Tips.
Alzheimer’s & dementia prevention #6: An active social life
Human beings are highly social creatures. We don’t thrive in isolation, and neither does our brain. Studies show that the more connected we are, the better we fare on tests of memory and cognition. Staying socially active may even protect against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, so make your social life a priority.
Oftentimes, we become more isolated as we get older, but there are many ways to keep your support system strong and develop new relationships:
- Join a club or social group
- Visit your local community center or senior center
- Take group classes (such as at the gym or a community college)
- Reach out over the phone or email
- Join a social network such as Facebook
- Get to know your neighbors
- Make a weekly date with friends
- Get out (go to the movies, the park, museums, and other public places)
Simple ways to connect with your partner, family member, or friend
- Commit to spending quality time together on a regular basis. Even during very busy and stressful times, a few minutes of really sharing and connecting can help keep bonds strong.
- Find something that you enjoy doing together, whether it is a shared hobby, dance class, daily walk, or sitting over a cup of coffee in the morning.
- Try something new together. Doing new things together can be a fun way to connect and keep things interesting. It can be as simple as trying a new restaurant or going on a day trip to a place you’ve never been before.
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