Reducing your risk for dementia is good for your whole body
What is good for the body, is good for the brain, and vice versa. Your overall health, including brain health and cognitive abilities, can be maintained and improved with some simple lifestyle choices. Medical professionals teach that 70% of our health is determined by our behaviors.
While currently there are no effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other memory disorders, data on prevention continue to soar. Multiple lines of evidence from all around the world show that it is possible to reduce the risk of dementia as we age — just not with drugs.
What does seem to work, however, is a healthy lifestyle. Here are seven habits from AARP that can boost your brain health in your 50s and beyond.
1. Keep your blood pressure under control
Recommendations that promote heart health also promote brain health. And it is more complicated than just ensuring good blood flow to the brain. Heart and brain health are woven together not only by lifestyle factors but by genetics, cholesterol metabolism, and the health and integrity of the cardiovascular system.
Blood pressure management can be achieved with steps including a well-balanced diet, exercise and medication. If you notice that your blood pressure is creeping up, talk with your health care provider about the best treatment plan.
2. Get regular exercise
Exercise can be a boon for brain health beyond increasing blood flow to the brain as it generates the release of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes the growth of the cells that send and receive signals from the brain, called neurons. BDNF also increases the connections between neurons, and it sustains them in the face of environmental and other challenges.
National guidelines recommend that older adults get two to five hours of exercise each week. The best exercise program is the one you can consistently do. Electronic assistants like Fitbit and step-tracking phone apps allow you to see your progress in real-time. Group exercise can also be helpful because it combines the benefits of working out with important social connections.
3. Eat a heart-healthy diet
This is a diet that keeps cholesterol in check and promotes normal insulin activity — both of which reduce your dementia risk. Studies have shown that people who adhere to more of a Mediterranean-style diet rich in vegetables, fish and heart-healthy fats are less likely to develop dementia. A Mediterranean diet was associated with larger brain volume and less beta amyloid — the protein that forms the neuron-killing clumps that are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.
The MIND diet is another approach, combining a Mediterranean-style plan with the American Heart Association’s DASH diet. It’s rich in neuroprotective foods (nuts, berries, green leafy vegetables, fish and olive oil). A landmark study showed that people around the age of 80 who followed it for five years had a surprisingly large cognitive advantage over those who didn’t.
4. Manage your weight
Obesity is a well-established risk factor for dementia, as well as other chronic conditions. In a 2020 study, subjects with obesity were 34 percent more likely to develop dementia than those who were normal weight; the risk for women was even higher (39 percent). But how are the two linked?
Neurons, like all cells, use glucose for their energy source. But they can’t take it up without normal insulin function. Excess body weight (especially around the belly), not exercising, smoking and short sleep make it harder for insulin to move into cells, leading to insulin resistance. Losing weight is the best way to prevent, or even reverse, insulin resistance. According to the American Diabetes Association, losing as little as 5 to 7 percent of your body weight can be enough. If you’re taking an insulin-regulating medication like metformin, staying on track with it is extremely important for long-term cognitive health.
5. Learn new things
Just like bodies, brains are meant to be active. The trick is to challenge yourself, but not with something so difficult that you give it up. Reading the news, learning a language, taking a class either in person or on the computer, taking up a musical instrument can all be helpful. The Alzheimer’s Association has some brain fitness recommendations. Your health care provider may be able to suggest some, too.
6. Get good sleep
Medical experts recommend eight to nine hours of sleep on average per night for optimal health. Chronic short sleep — particularly in midlife — can damage the brain. Lack of sleep interferes with the brain’s nightly cleaning cycle. During deep sleep neurons produce less beta amyloid and tau (proteins at the heart of Alzheimer’s) and secrete more of them as waste.
Sleep disorders affect 50 to 70 million Americans. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) — a temporary cessation of breath, followed by gasping — is a common problem, and it has been associated with cognitive impairment and structural changes in the brain. It’s also linked to obesity, increasing age and poor muscle tone — good reasons to lose weight and get some exercise. Sleep physicians can help with medication, OSA equipment and psychological training systems that are designed to help you get better rest.
7. Manage stress
Stress is not just a state of mind but a state of body, and it exerts powerful physical changes in the brain. Stress has direct adverse effects on health, including blood sugar, blood pressure and abdominal obesity and is a very serious disruptor of sleep. One study of older adults found that the risk of dementia rose by 2 percent for every stress symptom reported.
Mindfulness meditation can reverse some of those changes — and quickly. A study showed positive changes in a number of brain regions after just 40 days of the practice. Participants’ brain waves changed, too, and they reported improvements in depression. Interested in learning more? The American Psychological Association can explain the benefits of mindfulness meditation and how to get started.
Here are materials with easy tips to keep your brain in top shape. (Available in English, Spanish, Tagalog, Vietnamese, and Arabic)