There is no magic wand to guarantee you won’t have brain issues down the road. However, there are many lifestyle choices, like being physically active and staying social, which can help to maintain brain health and create a brain span that matches our lifespan. In fact, Barnes and Yaffe argued that 1.1-3.0 million Alzheimer's disease cases can be prevented worldwide by a 10-25 percent reduction in seven risk factors. [Barnes D et al., 2011]
There is still a lot we do not know about dementia; however, we are learning more every day. Ongoing research is looking into issues such as ways to prevent cognitive impairment, earlier screening tools, genetic predispositions, better diagnostic testing as well as therapeutic measures. Given the prevalence of cognitive disease, this is one of the most active research areas in the world of neurology.
Note: There are many different types of dementia; however, Alzheimer’s disease is by far the most common at 60-80 percent making most research. Therefore, the below comments focus on this particular disease process.
Here are five lifestyle choices that can help us keep our brains healthy as we age.
1. Physical activity
Regular physical exercise may keep the brain healthy and lower the risk of dementia. Exercise may directly benefit brain cells by increasing blood and oxygen flow to brain tissue. Physical activity and social interaction may delay the onset of dementia and reduce its symptoms. [Scarmess N et al., 2010]
As we age, we have to remember to exercise safely. Please consult with your primary care provider to ensure you are healthy enough to exercise. Some of the safest exercises as we get older include water aerobics and low impact cardio, such as a stationary or recumbent bike. For most healthy adults, professional organizations recommend 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity spread out evenly throughout the week.
2. Cognitive and social activity
A number of studies indicate that maintaining strong social connections and keeping mentally active as we age might lower the risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer's. Experts are not certain about the reason for this association. It may be due to direct mechanisms through which social and mental stimulation strengthen connections between nerve cells in the brain.
Those who continue learning new things throughout life and challenging their brains are less likely to develop 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. [Wilson RS et al., 2002]
Some ways to keep your mind active and stay mentally sharp include: drawing, painting, puzzles, crosswords and interacting with peers. Staying social is important for your mental health as well.
3. Strict management of chronic disease
Management of chronic conditions, such as hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol and depression, protects the brain. There is good evidence to support proper control of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular risk factors reduces the risk for dementia. Keeping blood pressure, glucose, cholesterol and weight in normal range allows vascular and brain cells to function better. Tobacco use is associated with higher vascular disease and cognitive impairment, and alcohol abuse is strongly linked to cognitive decline.
Depression is also a risk factor for cognitive decline. It’s important to keep depression under control. This could be achieved by regular visits to your healthcare provider, paying attention to diet and taking medication on time.
4. Healthy diet
Many of the risk factors for dementia may be modified by diet. In addition, a diet high in antioxidants may reduce inflammation, which is associated with the risk of dementia. It is reasonable to suggest that the risk of dementia itself could be modified by diet. Among reviewed studies examining the association between Mediterranean Diet (MedDiet) intake and pathological cognitive function (i.e. dementia), there was a general consensus that increased MedDiet lead to reduced risk of cognitive impairment. [Feart C et al., 2009]
The MedDiet is characterized by high intake of vegetables, fruits, olive oil, legumes, fish, whole grain cereals, nuts and seeds; and low consumption of processed foods, dairy products, red meat, vegetable oils and alcohol. Studies have shown the MedDiet is associated with lower rates of vascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia syndromes.
Note: There is no good evidence to support the use of any particular medications or supplements to prevent the development of dementia.
5. Fall prevention
Simply put, falls often cause head injury. There appears to be a strong link between future risk of brain function decline and serious head injury, especially when injury involves loss of consciousness.
We can reduce risk of brain health decline by wearing a helmet when active and making our homes “fall-proof” by removing unnecessary rugs and furniture and placing handrails in bathrooms.
It is important to keep our brain healthy as we age, so that we can prevent or reduce the risk for disease, such as dementia and effects of traumatic brain injury. As a general rule of thumb, keep this in mind: Often what is good for your heart is also good for your brain.
Saima Bashir Choudhry is currently a master’s in public health student at the University of North Dakota shadowing at Altru Health System. She has ten years of experience working as a physician (general medicine) in Pakistan and the United Kingdom. Outside of school and research, Saima enjoys cooking, spending time with her kids, and playing tennis and basketball.
Dr. Cory Edwards is a practicing neurologist at Altru Health System, as well as Clinical Instructor for Neurology at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of North Dakota and went on to complete his medical degree from UND as well. He completed his neurology training at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Outside of work, Dr. Edwards enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter, going on walks with their dog, and watching movies and UND hockey.