Many of us spend a lot of time working to keep our bodies healthy. We engage in aerobic exercise to keep our hearts healthy. We don’t smoke to ensure our lungs stay well. And we get vaccines such as an annual flu shot to help bolster our immune systems to fight off influenza and other diseases.
But we also need to pay attention to keeping our brains healthy. Here are some measures that are thought to help decrease the risk of age-related dementias, including Alzheimer’s disease, as well as to keep our brains fit, sharp and active for as long as possible.
• Keep your mind active
and challenged and stay socially engaged. Research seems to indicate that mentally stimulating activities may build new connections between nerve cells and may even help the brain build new cells, known as neurons, especially in the area of the brain that deals with memory and learning. Engage in activities that challenge your brain. Learn a new language or how to play a musical instrument. Read books, create art, volunteer or converse and interact socially on a regular basis with others. Limit the time you spend watching television or reading social media. These are typically not activities that provide adequate mental stimulation.
• Get regular physical activity and exercise. It is likely that regular exercise increases oxygen-rich blood flow to the region of the brain responsible for thought. In addition, exercise can lower blood pressure, improve cholesterol, decrease diabetes and reduce stress, all of which can prevent optimal performance of the brain. Harvard Health (health.harvard.edu) reports that in a study done at the University of British Columbia, regular aerobic exercise was found to increase the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning.
• Harvard Health notes that our brains are working 24/7 and need a supply of premium fuel to help them function at their most optimal. This premium fuel is a healthy diet that includes lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats. There is some evidence that following the Mediterranean diet may decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Limit saturated and trans fats and sugars. There is also some evidence that reducing calories has been linked to a decreased risk of mental decline with aging in both animals and humans. Determine how many calories you need each day for your age, gender and activity level.
• Don’t smoke or use tobacco products. Smoking restricts blood flow throughout the body, including to the brain. In addition, nicotine is thought to alter brain structure. Go to smokefree.gov for more information.
• Manage any chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes. As noted previously, these conditions may be risk factors for dementia, especially vascular dementia. Mayoclinic.org has more information about this.
• Limit alcohol intake. According to the American Heart Association (heart.org), women should have no more than one drink per day and men no more than two. Excessive alcohol intake is a risk factor for dementia.
• Protect your head. Traumatic brain injuries, including concussion, can increase the risk of cognitive impairment with aging. Always wear a helmet when bicycling, riding a motorcycle, skateboarding or engaging in other wheeled sports. Take all safety precautions if engaging in contact sports such as football, soccer, rugby or boxing. Always wear your seat belt. For more on prevention of brain injury, go to cdc.gov.
• Get adequate sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation (sleepfoundation.org), most adults need between 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night. Inadequate sleep can lead to problems with memory, concentration and thinking.
• Manage medications. Take only those medications that have been prescribed for you and only as you have been directed by your health practitioner. Always share with your pharmacist and health care provider all of the prescription and over-the-counter medications and supplements that you are taking. Medication and supplement interactions can be one of the biggest factors in impaired brain function. Often this resolves with medication adjustments.
• Take care of your mental health. Work on getting any stress you have to a manageable level. See your doctor for treatment of depression and anxiety. People who are anxious, stressed or depressed tend to perform poorly on cognitive function tests.
To learn more, visit the Alzheimer’s Association’s website, alz.org.
— Aynsley Anderson Sosinski, MA, RN, is community education coordinator at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, which is a major sponsor of WellCommons. She is a Mayo Clinic Certified Wellness Coach. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org