For those of us with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia in our family history, forgetting names and misplacing keys is more than just a frustration – it can feel like a sign of what’s to come. But we are more than our genes and in fact, for the vast majority, it’s lifestyle choices that represent the biggest dementia risk factors.
Change is hard, and it’s unrealistic to try to completely transform your life just for the sake of making changes. A smarter move would be to take manageable steps that will actually make a provable impact. Taking a look at scientific evidence can help you make those changes.
Improve Your Daily Routine
From how you spend your daylight hours to how well you sleep at night, it’s your daily routine that impacts your health the most.
• Quit smoking. A daily habit of lighting up can be a dementia risk factor, research shows. In 2014, the World Health Organization found that smokers have a 45 percent higher risk of developing dementia than non-smokers. Be aware of second-hand smoke exposure too – it may increase your dementia risk by nearly the same amount as if you were holding the cigarette.
• Sleep better. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 50-70 million U.S. adults don’t get enough sleep. Studies suggest that slumber is essential to brain health. As you snooze, your brain resets and cleans out the hormones and chemicals it used during the day. One of the chemicals that is scrubbed away each night is amyloid-beta, a chemical that forms brain plaque – a key suspect in what causes Alzheimer’s.
• Exercise regularly. One of the signs of dementia is loss of brain mass. A 2013 study conducted by Maryland School of Public Health researchers tracked four groups of healthy adults aged 65-89 – those with high and low Alzheimer’s risk and those with high and low activity levels. Only one group lost brain mass – those who had both a high genetic risk for Alzheimer’s and who also did not exercise.
Fuel Your Body
Your body and your brain run on what you consume. There is a significant amount of science on which foods can help reduce your dementia risk.
• Drink raw fruit and vegetable juices. A 2006 study from Vanderbilt University found that drinking fruit and vegetable juices more than three times a week could cut your risk of developing Alzheimer’s by 76 percent.
• Eat less sugar. Diabetes may not cause Alzheimer’s directly, but the two diseases share the same root cause – the body not using insulin properly. According to research published in the American Academy of Neurology’s journal in 2011, diabetics are more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and have an increased risk of developing dementia of any kind.
• Eat more fish. Omega-3 fatty acids may protect against brain atrophy, which is associated dementia. An eight-year study lead by University of South Dakota researchers found that women with the highest levels of omega-3s in their blood had 2.7 percent larger brain volume – that means their brain atrophied less. Plus, those who reported eating seafood at least once a week were less likely to have the dementia-related brain plaque.
Strengthen Your Brain
Protect your brain’s health by strengthening the areas often targeted by dementia.
• Learn a new language. In 2013, a study published in the American Academy of Neurology’s journal found that participants who spoke a second language developed dementia 4.5 years later than their monolingual counterparts.
• Do new things. Simply put, learning new skills helps enhance cognitive function. In a 2013 University of Texas at Dallas study, participants learned quilting and/or digital photography for three months. They found that no matter if the participants learned the skill alone or with others, their memory of past events was enhanced. The key is to find and spend time mastering new hobbies that make your brain think in new ways.
• Meditate. Meditation not only lowers stress – research suggests it can help reduce brain atrophy. A study from the Jena University Hospital in Germany found that the brains of people who meditated regularly appeared on average seven years younger than their true age.
Dementia is not inevitable. The studies highlighted here are just part of the evidence available that it’s possible to influence and change your dementia risk factors. Know the science so you can face dementia head-on.
Tracy Layden is a Certified Aging in Place Specialist. Born and raised in Silicon Valley, Tracy leads the marketing efforts at Alert-1, a personal safety technology and consulting firm dedicated to helping seniors live safely and independently. Tracy holds a degree in mathematics from Scripps College and is an accomplished ballroom dancer and equestrian.