Thinking about having a disease can be a terrifying thought, particularly if you’ve seen a loved one suffering from dementia. While you may have been told that all you can do is hope for the best and wait for a prescription cure, the reality is far more inspiring.Promising research shows that you can reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s and other dementias through a combination of simple but effective lifestyle changes.
By identify and controlling your personal risk factors and leading a brain-healthy lifestyle, you can maximize your chances of lifelong brain health and preserve your cognitive abilities. These steps may prevent the symptoms of dementia and slow down the process of deterioration.
- Look after your heart
Keeping blood pressure , cholesterol, Type II diabetes and obesity under control can reduce the impact of vascular dementia in particular. There’s more and more evidence to indicate that what ‘s good for your heart is also good for your brain. Maintaining your cardiovascular health can be crucial to lowering your risk of different types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. And of course, addressing heart-health issues can also help you to lower your risk for a future heart attack or stroke.
Hypertension or elevated blood pressure is closely associated with an increased risk of dementia. High blood pressure can destroy tiny blood vessels in the parts of the brain responsible for cognition and memory. The latest American Heart Association guidelines class blood pressure readings of 130/80 mm Hg and above as the start of high blood pressure.
a) Check your blood pressure at home. A research in the Netherlands showed that a significant difference in blood pressure levels over a number of years was correlated with an increased risk of dementia. Inexpensive sensors that wrap around your upper arm will help you keep track of your blood pressure during the day and pick up on any variations. Some devices even send the results to your phone so you can easily track your readings or share them with your doctor.
b) Make healthy diet and lifestyle changes. Exercising, trimming your waistline, lowering your stress, and reducing your salt, caffeine, and alcohol intake can all help to lower your blood pressure. Try to cut back on takeout, frozen, and processed food which tend to be high in sodium and substitute them with fresh vegetables and fruit.
2. Be physically active
Exercise is thought to stimulate the brain to create new neurons and thus minimize cognitive loss. Muscle-strengthening exercises also aid with balance (reducing falls). As well as enhancing mood, exercise also helps protect the heart by reducing the associated risk factors. What’s more, exercise can also delay further decline in those who have already begun to experience cognitive disorders. Exercise protects against Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia by stimulating the brain’s ability to maintain old connections as well as make new ones.
a) Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise each week. The ideal plan involves a combination of cardio exercise and strength training. Good activities for beginners include walking and swimming.
b) Build muscle to pump up your brain. Moderate levels of weight and strength training not only improve muscle mass, they help you preserve brain health. To those over 65, adding 2-3 strength sessions to your weekly routine can cut your risk of dementia’s in half.
c) Include balance and coordination exercises. Head injuries from falls are an can concern as you age, which in turn raise the risk for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. As well as protecting your head when you exercise (wearing a sports helmet when cycling, for example), balance and coordination exercises can help you stay agile and avoid spills. Try yoga, Tai Chi, or exercises using balance balls.
3. Enjoy social activity
Human beings are highly social creatures. We don’t thrive in isolation, and neither do our brains. Staying socially engaged may even protect against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in later life, so make developing and maintaining a strong network of friends a priority.
You don’t need to be a social butterfly or the life of the party, but you do need to regularly connect face-to-face with someone who cares about you and makes you feel heard. While many of us become more isolated as we get older, it’s never too late to meet others and develop new friendships:
Social engagement increases mental activity and emotional connections to others and can help strengthen the pathways of memories. Social isolation not only increases the risk of dementia, but also increases the risk of hypertension, depression and coronary
heart disease, which are also risk factors for dementia.
4. Follow a healthy diet
Studies have shown that following a healthy diet – eating lots of fruit, vegetables, legumes and nuts; replacing butter with olive oil; eating fish twice a week; adding herbs and spices instead of salt; and limiting red meat – is associated with a reduction in the risk of dementia. Processed foods with high fats and trans fats are associated with an increased risk of dementia.
a) Manage your weight. Extra pounds are a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. A major study found that people who were overweight in midlife were twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s down the line, and those who were obese had three times the risk. Losing weight can go a long way to protecting your brain.
b) Cut down on sugar. Sugary foods and refined carbs such as white flour, white rice, and pasta can lead to dramatic spikes in blood sugar which inflame your brain. Watch out for hidden sugar in all kinds of packaged foods from cereals and bread to pasta sauce and low or no-fat products.
c) Stock up on fruit and vegetables. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, the more the better. Eat up across the color spectrum to maximize protective antioxidants and vitamins, including green leafy vegetables, berries, and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli.
d) Cook at home often. By cooking at home, you can ensure that you’re eating fresh, wholesome meals that are high in brain-healthy nutrients and low in sugar, salt, unhealthy fat, and additives.
5. Mentally challenge your brain
Use it or lose it is the key concept here. Challenging your brain with new activities can help build new brain cells and strengthen connections. These may not have impacts on memory, but there is some evidence it aids executive functions, such as decision-making and reasoning, and helps to process things faster.
Those who continue learning new things and challenging their brains throughout life are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. In essence, you need to “use it or lose it.” In the groundbreaking NIH ACTIVE study, older adults who received as few as 10 sessions of mental training not only improved their cognitive functioning in daily activities in the months after the training, but continued to show long-lasting improvements 10 years later.
Activities involving multiple tasks or requiring communication, interaction, and organization offer the greatest protection. Set aside time each day to stimulate your brain:
a) Learn something new. Study a foreign language, practice a musical instrument, or learn to paint or sew. One of the best ways to take up a new hobby is to sign up for a class and then schedule regular times for practicing. The greater the novelty, complexity, and challenge, the greater the benefit.
b) Raise the bar for an existing activity. If you’re not keen on learning something new, you can still challenge your brain by increasing your skills and knowledge of something you already do. For example, if you can play the piano and don’t want to learn a new instrument, commit to learning a new piece of music or improving how well you play your favorite piece.
c) Practice memorization techniques. For example, make up a sentence in which the first letter of each word represents the initial of what you want to remember, such as using the sentence “Every good boy does fine” to memorize the notes of the treble clef, E, G, B, D, and F. Creating rhymes and patterns can strengthen your memory connections.
d) Enjoy strategy games, puzzles, and riddles. Brain teasers and strategy games offer a great mental exercise and develop the capacity to shape and maintain cognitive connections. Perform a crossword puzzle, play board games, cards, or word and number games such as Scrabble or Sudoku.
Check out my related post: Are dementia villages the happiest place on earth?