As a 54-year-old woman with a family history of Alzheimer’s disease (my grandmother had the condition for many years), I want to implement evidence-backed actions into my daily life now and continue as I age. But, unfortunately, so often, a new study is released every day that reports whether to do this or not eat that.
It can be so overwhelming that it is tempting to do nothing because the path is unclear. Yet more than 6 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, a degenerative disease of the brain that causes dementia, or the gradual loss of memory, judgment and ability to function.
The Alzheimer’s Association projects that by 2050, this number will rise to nearly 13 million. Most people who develop the disease, known as late-onset Alzheimer’s dementia, are 65 or older.
Alzheimer’s, like other common chronic diseases, is thought to grow due to multiple factors rather than a single cause (exceptions are rare cases of Alzheimer’s related to specific genetic mutations).
The most significant risk factors for late-onset Alzheimer’s are older age, genetics — especially the e4 form of the apolipoprotein E (APOE) — and having a family history of the disease, according to the 2023 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures Special Report.
Today is a good time to start increasing your brain health, says Mary Wirtz, who has worked at the Mayo Clinic as a clinical registered dietitian and nutrition instructor.
“I regularly encourage individuals to include brain-healthy foods as part of their meal planning and preparation routine, such as fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables; whole grains, including oats, barley and quinoa; beans and lentils; olive oil and nuts; and lean poultry,” she says.
Wirtz adds, “Foods high in added sugars, such as sweets, candies and sodas; and trans fats like red and processed meats, fried foods, butter and lard should be limited as part of a brain-healthy diet.”
In addition to these nutrition tips, the following 10 evidence-based tactics can be added to daily life to help optimize your brain by increasing neuroplasticity and cognitive reserves.
Neuroplasticity refers to maintaining, repairing, and creating new neural connections in the brain, while the cognitive reserve is the brain’s flexibility and capacity to use resources in novel ways.
1. Eat the “MIND” way
“The MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet contains vitamin-rich foods and flavonoids that protect the brain by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation,” explains Wirtz.
In one study examining the effects of the nutrition plan, researchers found a 53% lower rate of Alzheimer’s disease for those with the highest MIND scores. Even participants with moderate MIND scores showed a 35% lower rate than those with the lowest.
“Fortunately, the MIND diet helps to reduce other chronic health conditions, including heart disease, depression and obesity,” Wirz adds.
A systematic review of 13 more recent studies has confirmed these findings, showing that adherence to the MIND diet was positively associated with improved cognitive function in older adults. Following a balanced eating pattern is vital, concurs Elizabeth Ward, co-author of “The Menopause Diet Plan, A Natural Guide to Managing Hormones, Health, and Happiness.”
Even with a family history of cognitive function problems, a diet that is low in saturated fat, sodium, and added sugar and rich in plant foods, along with regular exercise, helps protect brain function, according to an 8-year study published in JAMA that followed more than 196,000 people who were at least 60 years old.
In the study, the likelihood of dementia was cut by about half among those at high genetic risk when they closely adhered to positive lifestyle habits, which included not smoking, regular physical activity, a healthy diet and moderate alcohol consumption.
Also see: Medicare unveils plan for coverage of new Alzheimer’s drugs
2. Get physical
You don’t have to train for a triathlon to boost your brain power; add a joint low-intensity exercise to your daily activities. Low-intensity activity is tied to brain health, notes Ward.
For example, a 2019 study demonstrated that every additional hour of low-intensity physical activity, such as walking, was linked to greater brain volume in midlife adults even when they did less than the suggested amount of exercise (the nationally recommended guidelines are 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week) which could mean physical activity has the potential to prevent dementia.
Other studies signal physical exercise is linked to neuroplasticity, in which the human brain adapts to changing demands by altering its functional and structural properties to learn and acquire skills.
3. Up your Omegas
Katie Tomaschko Tout, a registered dietitian nutritionist, advises people over 50 to increase their intake of omega-3 fatty acids. “Omega-3s, in particular DHA, have been shown to help prevent/delay cognitive decline and the onset of diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease,” she says.
“Foods highest in DHA are fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna and trout), whole eggs, flaxseed and chia seeds. Because many Americans don’t eat seafood consistently, I recommend most individuals to supplement with a rich fish oil supplement (of at least 1000 mg combined EPA and DHA),” she notes.
Numerous studies, including one published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, in 2022, confirm that eating cold-water fish and other sources of omega-3 fatty acids may preserve brain health and enhance cognition in middle age.
Faculty of The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and other investigators of the Framingham Heart Study, a long-term, multigenerational study to identify common factors contributing to cardiovascular disease, conducted the analysis. For this study, the volunteers’ average age was 46.
“Studies have looked at this association in older populations. The new contribution here is that, even at younger ages, if you have a diet that includes some omega-3 fatty acids, you are already protecting your brain for most of the indicators of brain aging that we see at middle age,” explains Claudia Satizabal, Ph.D., lead author of the study and assistant professor of population health sciences with the Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases at UT Health San Antonio.
4. Commit to catching your ZZZs
In a productivity-conscious culture, sleep often gets deprioritized. In addition, more sleep disturbances are reported among older adults than any other age group, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
However, a long-term Harvard University Medical School study of 2,800 individuals ages 65 and older found that individuals who slept fewer than 5 hours per night were twice as likely to develop dementia as those who slept six to eight hours per night.
Another study of almost 8,000 participants demonstrated a 30% increase in dementia risk was associated with sleeping six hours or less at ages 50, 60 and 70, compared with an average sleep duration of seven hours.
So, it is worth the extra effort to develop improved sleep habits, such as limiting caffeine, keeping the bedroom dark and cool, switching off electronics in the hours before bedtime and considering using a white noise machine or app to help you fall asleep.
Plus: Could too little sex lead to dementia? Maybe, a new study suggests.
5. Learn a new language
Even if you are not planning a trip to another country, learning to speak a foreign language can help boost brain power. Smartphone apps offer a way to acquire skills in a second language, and the benefits compare with brain training apps designed to improve executive function in older individuals.
A recent study included 76 adults aged 65 to 75 who were assigned to either 16 weeks of Spanish learning using the app Duolingo for 30 minutes a day, an equivalent amount of brain training using the app BrainHQ or a control condition. For two primary measures, the language app provided equal benefits as BrainHQ compared with a control group.
6. Challenge yourself to learn more, novel activities
Like up your language skills, open yourself up to various new activities, such as brain games (like jigsaw puzzles and word or number games) or learning to sew, create pottery or play pickleball.
The mental stimulation of mastering new-to-you activities helps build neuroplasticity and cognitive reserve to solve new challenges.
Further, doing a single known activity strengthens the same neural connections, while novel activities require problem-solving that can lead to new neural connections.
7. Cut back on alcohol or abstain
New studies are disproving the notion that moderate drinking is good for health. For example, a systematic review of 107 cohort studies involving more than 4.8 million participants found no significant reductions in risk of death (all-cause mortality) for drinkers who drank less than 25 grams of alcohol (about two drinks) a day a day.
There was a significantly increased risk of death among female drinkers who drank 25 or more grams daily and male drinkers who drank 45 or more grams daily. Other research shows that heavy alcohol consumption is associated with changes in brain structures, cognitive impairment and an increased risk of dementia.
“Excessive drinking may result in memory loss and shrinkage of the brain, and research suggests that women are more vulnerable. Damage also tends to appear with shorter periods of excessive drinking for women than for men,” notes Ward.
8. Control blood glucose levels
And be on the lookout for diabetes! Both type 1 and Type 2 diabetes are associated with reduced performance of cognitive function and with structural abnormalities in the brain.
“Most people have Type 2 diabetes, which is linked to a 50% increased risk of dementia. One analysis of studies involving over 1.7 million people found the risk of Alzheimer’s disease is higher in people with diabetes. Regular physical exercise, achieving and maintaining a healthy weight and an eating plan with adequate protein and fiber reduce the risk for Type 2 diabetes,” Ward explains.
A yearly physical with blood work can also help keep glucose in check.
9. Get social
One of the nine principles of the Blue Zones for longevity is social circles that support healthy behaviors. Social connection is vital as it stimulates the brain and aids healthy aging.
However, a 2023 study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society concluded social isolation among older adults is associated with greater dementia risk. The study evaluated data from the National Health and Aging Trends Study that followed 5002 older adults, of which 1172 were socially isolated and 3850 were not.
“Being socially isolated had a 1.28 higher hazard of incident dementia over nine years,” the researchers report.
Read: Am I lonesome? ‘I’m fine. I’m fine.’ How single men can prepare to age alone.
Also, results from a 28-year follow-up of the Whitehall II cohort study of more than 10,000 participants who shared social contact data suggest “a protective effect of social contact against dementia and that more frequent contact confers higher cognitive reserve, although the ability to maintain more social contact may be a marker of cognitive reserve.”
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10. Meditate to control stress and calm your mind
You might think, “Meditation does not work for me,” or “I can’t sit still.” Yet, a regular brief, daily meditation practice has been found to decrease negative moods and enhanced attention, working memory and recognition memory, as well as reduced anxiety in 8 weeks.
Previously, a study of 20-year meditators demonstrated they had more gray matter (which is linked to brain optimization) than the control or nonmediator group.
Another study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease concluded that meditation and other modalities such as dietary modification, physical exercise, mental stimulation and socialization might be beneficial as part of an AD prevention program.
Use a short, guided meditation app or video (many are free), or take a class to get started with conscious breathing. In a few sessions, this can help begin to reduce stress. Ward explains that cortisol is a stress hormone that can affect recall.
“In a study of midlife women and men, researchers found that higher blood levels of cortisol were associated with a lower brain volume, which is important because brain volume is linked to memory. Moreover, there was a stronger association between cortisol levels and memory issues in women. Though the study does not prove that cortisol is responsible for cognitive decline, it does suggest a link,” she says.
While no one knows what the future may hold, incorporating some or all of these lifestyle tactics in daily life as much as possible may help people over age 50, such as myself, be proactive and feel empowered about Alzheimer’s disease.
Lisa B. Samalonis is a writer and editor based in New Jersey. She writes about health, parenting, books, and personal finance.
This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org, ©2023 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.
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