As people live longer, the number of those being diagnosed with dementia and Alzheimer’s is on the rise. So far, no cure has been found and treatments to slow the progression have shown largely disappointing results.
But amid many high-profile failures in clinical trials, there has also been some success in the past year as we learn more about the close ties between brain health and cardiovascular health. The news is encouraging.
According to Dr. Howard Chertkow, chair in Cognitive Neurology at Baycrest, a leading geriatric health and research center in Toronto, there are some things we can do now to help prevent dementia down the road. He suggests adopting these 14 lifestyle modifications to prevent Alzheimer’s disease and achieve what he calls “successful aging.” You can watch his full presentation at the 2019 Rotman Research Conference here.
- Treat your medical problems. Be sure to see your doctor and get an annual checkup — even if you don’t have specific medical concerns. Make sure your heart, your thyroid and your kidneys are checked and any problems are treated.
- Avoid sedatives and alcohol. If you use sleeping pills every night, stop! Find some other way to get to sleep. The best path to a good night’s sleep is exercising during the day.
- Get more — and better — sleep. Sleep is very important for your brain health. People who get less than six hours of sleep are at higher risk of dementia so aim for seven or eight hours each night. “There’s something magic about sleep,” says Chertkow. “We now know that while you’re asleep the amyloid proteins — the toxins in your brain — are being cleared out.” Studies also show that people who have fragmented or bad sleep, have a higher incidence of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Treat your vascular risk factors. Strokes and high blood pressure also increase the risk of dementia, so be sure to have your high blood pressure and cholesterol monitored and treated. The long-term so-called “Nun Study” from the University Kentucky tested the memory of a group of nuns and examined their brains after death. Of those that showed changes of Alzheimer’s disease in their brains, only 57 percent with no strokes had dementia with memory loss. If they’d had even one stroke, that number increased to 93 percent.
- Avoid diabetes and pre-diabetes. The increased insulin level in your blood associated with diabetes affects your brain by causing inflammation and amyloid build-up. The bottom line? Diabetes leads to Alzheimer’s disease. So if you already have diabetes, keep it under control and if you’re at risk, have it checked out and treated.
- Keep physically fit. You probably already know that exercising, losing weight, and staying active are good for your heart. But the same lifestyle modifications are also good for your brain — giving you two reasons to get out there and exercise! You should be getting 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise. The good news? These 2 ½ hours a week can take as many as two years off your brain age.
- Seek out Intellectual and cognitive stimulation. Make an effort to stimulate your brain. Take a class, do some puzzles, read a book, participate in a book club. Think of your brain as a muscle — you need to exercise it.
- Treat hearing loss. If you can’t hear well, you won’t know what people are saying, which makes it impossible to remember, says Chertkow. And poor hearing often leads to social isolation — a contributing factor in dementia.
- Decrease stress. People with high levels of stress as early as their 40s and 50s have a higher rate of dementia later on. And stress in your later years can compound the mild cognitive impairment of aging by adding to the things you already need to do and remember — often resulting in more confusion.
- Treat depression. Depression is linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Don’t be embarrassed — talk to your doctor and get it treated.
- Be social. Social activity is important. “Everyone should be in a book club,” says Chertkow. “In fact people should be in walking book clubs!” This type of activity combines social interaction with brain stimulation — the best of both worlds. Being socially active and having a network of friends and family can actually protect your brain.
- Avoid isolation and loneliness — Volunteer! In addition to having a social network, studies show that when people feel they have more of a purpose in their lives, they are less prone to developing dementia. Studies also found that volunteering is one way to get involved, avoid isolation, and give purpose to your life by providing joy to others.
- Be mindful of your diet. You may not want to hear it, but it’s been shown that people’s diets do have an effect on their brains. The Mediterranean diet and MIND diet — both rich with fruits and vegetables, poultry, fish, and grains, but limited red meat and sweets, are highly recommended for brain health. On the bright side, it’s OK to have half a glass of red wine a day.
- Try less-proven dietary supplements for good brain health. Flavonoids such as blueberries, green leafy veggies, beans, and olive oil are good additions to a healthy-brain diet. The biggest problem is not what diet you choose, but whether you can stick with it.
Sue Sveum is a writer whose experience helping her aging parents led to a specialty in writing for and about seniors and their families. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and their Golden Retriever, Wrigley.