10 Tips for Maintaining a Healthy Brain
An estimated 5.3 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, and the number is growing daily as the Baby Boomers age. Even more shocking, one out of three people over age 85 has Alzheimer’s, says the Alzheimer’s Association, America’s leading organization for Alzheimer’s support and research.
Not only is Alzheimer’s a leading cause of death, but it’s also a leading cause of disability in America. People with Alzheimer’s tend to live four to eight years with their diagnosis, most of that time spent in the most severe stage of the disease. This is the stage when patients need help with bathing, dressing, eating and using the bathroom. They may lose their ability to recognize loved ones and communicate.
This means people with Alzheimer’s are more likely to require long-term care. The median cost for just one year in a nursing home is $91,250, according to Healthline, and has been increasing at a rate of four percent a year.
Is it possible to avoid this devastating illness? Do the games and phone apps that claim to ward off Alzheimer’s really work?
For now, the answer to both questions is maybe.
Understanding the Research and the Terminology
Researchers are working diligently to unlock the mystery of Alzheimer’s and other causes of dementia. When it comes to interpreting the research, it’s important to make the distinction between the two different types of cognitive decline, says Heather M. Snyder, Ph.D., senior director of Medical and Scientific Operations at the Alzheimer’s Association. “There’s normal aging memory issues and there’s dementia,” she points out.
Normal aging memory issues, also called age-related cognitive decline, happens to everyone to some degree. It’s the nagging forgetfulness, accompanied by a decline in problem-solving abilities and focus. A slight decline might cause seniors to temporarily forget someone’s name or forget why they walked into another room.
Dementia, on the other hand, is a set of symptoms that includes severely impaired reasoning and memory. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia.
While there’s not enough data to claim that brain games may delay dementia, especially Alzheimer’s, “there’s evidence that there could be a benefit to brain games (for the aging brain) in the context of an overall brain-healthy lifestyle,” says Dr. Snyder. “Engaging your brain in something new seems to consistently be linked to brain health.”
In other words, brain challenges such as memory games and learning new things may help delay age-related cognitive decline, but they are just a small part of what you can do to keep your brain healthy and stay sharp.
The Advantages of a Brain-Healthy Lifestyle
Your best bet for preventing (or at least postponing) age-related declines in memory and reasoning skills is a combination of activities that the Alzheimer’s Association calls “a brain-healthy lifestyle.” They recommend incorporating four specific habits—exercise, good nutrition, cognitive activity and social engagement—to potentially reduce your risk of cognitive decline.
Dr. Snyder uses her parents as an example. They take classes at the local university, which challenges them intellectually. They signed up with their friends, and they go out for a balanced dinner together on class nights, which adds a lively social component to these outings. Finally, they try to walk between dinner and class, which adds to their overall health and conditioning.
“It’s not going to be just one thing or another,” says Dr. Snyder. “The science today is saying the combination of brain-healthy habits is what’s making the difference.”
In fact, the most recent research on mental decline offers additional recommendations for keeping your brain sharp. The Alzheimer’s Association calls them 10 Ways to Love Your Brain:
1. Get regular exercise. Do something that elevates your heart rate and gets blood flowing to the brain.
2. Quit smoking. Research shows that smoking increases your risk of cognitive decline.
3. Protect yourself from brain injuries. Even a single concussion may increase your risk of dementia. Remember your seat belts and sports helmets.
4. Get plenty of sleep. Schedule enough time for sleep and get treatment for apnea.
5. Be social. Get involved in your community and spend time with friends.
6. Go back to school. Education at any time of life may boost your memory and reasoning skills.
7. Get heart healthy. Keep your blood pressure, weight and blood sugar under control.
8. Eat a healthy diet. The Mediterranean diet, high in fruits in vegetables, is beneficial.
9. Manage stress and depression. Get treatment for any mental health issues.
10. Challenge your mind. Keep your mind busy with challenging and novel activities.
Research to see if these healthy lifestyle tips may help you dodge or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease is encouraging but not yet conclusive. In the meantime, following these 10 easy steps may improve your quality of life now and help you stay physically and mentally sharp well into the future.