51 everyday habits that reduce your risk of dementia
Think ahead for your head.
“The main message is that there are modifiable risk factors that can reduce your risk,” says Maria C. Carrillo, PhD, the chief science officer for the Alzheimer’s Association.
While you can’t change the genes you inherited, there are many probable risk factors that you do have some say over.
Living with or supporting someone with dementia is not easy. Laughter and love will get you through.
Because of that, they theorize that these people have “cognitive reserve”—meaning their brains have enough extra capacity to stay sharp despite physical damage.
The Lancet Commission report emphasizes the association between lack of formal schooling and dementia, which suggests that what happens to us early in life can build this reserve: People with higher socioeconomic status during early childhood are less likely to develop dementia, and people who go to school at least through the secondary level are also better off.
“This points to the fact that brain health and, really, overall health is a lifelong commitment—it’s even something we should be thinking about with prenatal care,” Carrillo says.
But, she adds, that doesn’t mean you can’t continue protecting your cognitive health once you’ve grown up.
“There’s not anything you can do about your childhood education, but there is something you can do about making sure that you’re staying mentally active, that you challenge your brain, that you find ways to stay socially active.”
“We know that it’s important for people who are experiencing hearing loss to get that checked out and corrected whenever possible because it can contribute to cognitive decline as you age,” Carrillo says.
Plus, as baby boomers hit retirement age, hearing aids are improving rapidly—they’re smaller and work better than your grandfather’s did, according to a recent Scientific American article.
Do visitors casually mention that your TV is blaring? Do you keep asking people to repeat themselves? You’re not alone.
If you snore a lot or don’t feel rested after a full night’s sleep, you should get tested for sleep apnea, an airway condition in which you stop breathing briefly throughout the night.
Treatment can make a big difference in the quality of your sleep.
If you suffer from insomnia that lasts longer than a few days or weeks at a time, a sleep specialist might be able to help you figure out how to overcome it. If you just don’t get to bed early enough for a full night’s sleep before your early-morning workout, rethink your priorities for the sake of your brain health.
Few things are as coveted as good sleep: studies show that it adds years to your life and, over time, increases happiness as much as winning the lottery.
Subjects whose blood pressure was kept low—below the systolic (top) number of 120 mmHG—were 15 percent less likely to be diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, which is defined as difficulty with problems solving and memory.
“It’s the most definitive study seen to date that maintaining blood pressure at less than 120 for systolic is a positive thing, not only for your heart but also for brain health,” Carrillo says.
Several studies over the past three decades have linked cigarette use and mental decline.
But there’s good news: When you quit smoking, your risk of dementia from all causes drops to the same level of people who never smoked.
“The association with cognitive impairment may be due to the link between smoking and cardiovascular pathology,” the Lancet Commission report states.
“But cigarette smoke also contains neurotoxins which heighten the risk.”
When you quit smoking and no longer inhale the 4,800 toxic substances found in cigarettes, you experience enormous positive changes in your health, fitness, and risks of heart disease and cancer.
But studies suggest that there’s a link between the number of episodes of depression a person suffers and his or her dementia risk, the Lancet Commission finds, so you should always seek treatment no matter how old you are.
Even if depression only appears after a person is showing signs of dementia, the mood disorder should still be treated, according to the Alzheimer’s Association; it will improve the patient’s quality of life.
Evidence is growing that essential oils can help fight a variety of ailments - including depression.
“We don’t know what the heck is in store for us,” she says.
“The healthier your body and brain can be, the more you may be able to withstand or delay the symptoms of cognitive decline that could lead to mild cognitive impairment, and that could lead to a type of dementia, including Alzheimer’s.”
The Lancet Commission reports that high levels of exercise appear to be more protective than lower levels, but any amount is helpful.
Aside from motivating one another to exercise, they’re also boosting their brain health by simply being together.
Isolation, like depression, often becomes a problem as older adults begin feeling the effects of cognitive decline; however, loneliness also appears to be a precursor to dementia.
The Lancet Commission findings suggest that social isolation is a risk factor for high blood pressure, depression, and coronary heart disease as well, and all are bad for your brain.
Researchers think there may be more to the connection between diabetes and dementia—the Lancet Commission report indicates that insulin resistance interferes with the brain’s ability to clear amyloid proteins, which clump together to form the plaques that can lead to dementia.
It’s important to keep eating healthy food and exercising to avoid getting diabetes in midlife.
If you’ve already been diagnosed with diabetes, work closely with your doctors to control your blood sugar and manage the disease.
It includes lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, olive oil, fish, and even wine.
However, repeated mild injuries (such as those experienced by some athletes and soldiers) can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy—a degenerative brain disease.
The benefits of head protection are huge when you’re riding a motorcycle, biking, skateboarding, or skiing; the only downside is a flattened hairstyle.
Mixing up routines, taking on new challenges, and stepping outside your comfort zone provide stimulation that might help your brain maintain its resilience and build your cognitive reserves.
Or that getting on the treadmill can help keep your brain sharp?
The dozens of choices you make over the course of an average day—ordering the curry vs. the samosas, reading the newspaper vs. watching the news—really can determine whether you’ll develop dementia years from now, as well as how quickly the disease will progress.
There are no drugs or procedures that can cure or even effectively treat dementia.
But you have the power to combat some of its major risk factors, including diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stress, social isolation, and sleeplessness, according to Bowman.
But coffee consumed in the morning and perhaps the early afternoon, depending on your personal caffeine sensitivity, may reduce risk.
Coffee contains a chemical called eicosanoyl-5-hydroxytryptamide (EHT), which, in studies done on rats, has been shown to protect against Alzheimer’s disease.
The caffeine itself may also be protective: Mice developed fewer tau tangles in their brains when their drinking water was infused with caffeine.
In humans, Johns Hopkins researchers have shown that 200 milligrams of caffeine—the amount in one strong cup of coffee—can help us consolidate memories and more easily memorize new information.
One day this game may help us understand how tau proteins misfold in the brain. Another game, Nanocrafter, allows you to build everything from computer circuits to nanoscale machines using pieces of DNA.
Other interactive games—ranging from bridge to Chinese checkers to Pictionary to charades—cause us to exercise social smarts along with intellectual ones.
In addition to using our brains to strategize and, at times, to do math, such games force us to contemplate what other players are likely to do and likely to think.
Yet research from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business has found that many of us overestimate the difficulty of connecting with strangers and underestimate the rewards of doing so.
Before engaging in the study, participants predicted that engaging with strangers would reduce their well-being.
But when they went ahead and struck up a conversation with the person seated next to them, the opposite happened.
They felt better than when they sat in solitude.
They sleep in our beds, are pictured in our family portraits, and often earn a great deal of space in our holiday letters.
They also, in many cases, listen attentively to our problems.
Some surveys show that our pets are better listeners than our spouses.
Walk your pets together with your neighbors and you will feel less lonely, which helps ward off Alzheimer’s.
Higher vegetable consumption was associated with slower rate of cognitive decline in 3,718 people ages 65 years and older who participated in the Chicago Health and Aging Project.
All of the study participants scored lower on cognitive tests at the end of the study than they did at the beginning, but those who consumed more than four daily servings of vegetables experienced a 40 percent slower decline in their abilities than people who consumed less than one daily serving.
Acrylamide binds to the ends of our axons, making it tougher for brain cells to communicate with one another.
Water protects asparagine, so soaking potatoes for 15 to 30 minutes before cooking them can stop it from transforming into acrylamide.
Drain the potatoes and blot them dry before cooking.
These workshops can help you connect with others as you get in a good laugh.
Look at World Laughter Tour to find out if there’s a club near you.
A good belly laugh produces a chemical reaction that elevates your mood; reduces pain, stress, and blood pressure; and boosts immunity.
Humour therapy may be as effective as some prescription drugs at reducing agitation in people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
Nursing home patients who were entertained by clowns for two hours once a week were significantly less aggressive and agitated.
Even two weeks after the nursing home stopped bringing in the clowns, the patients remained less agitated.
Green tea is also a rich source of epigallocatechin-3-gallate, which has been shown to reduce beta-amyloid plaque and tau tangles in mice.
Tea has also been shown to drop blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
But commercially available bottled teas have been shown to contain few, if any, of these protective substances.
This kind of training may be ideal for people who have diabetes, a risk factor for Alzheimer’s, especially if you do these bursts about a half hour before each meal.
Study participants with insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes) were instructed to do six minutes of vigorous exercise (such as walking uphill on a treadmill or vigorous calisthenics) interspersed with six minutes of recovery exercise (such as slow walking) about a half hour before breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Other study participants just walked for 30 minutes before dinner.
Those who did the six-minute vigorous intervals experienced better post-meal blood sugar levels than study participants who did the once-daily, moderate session.
Whenever possible, actually walk into such establishments and conduct business in person instead of using the drive-through.
In addition to providing you with a moment of face-to-face interaction, this gives you a short burst of movement, which is also good for your brain.
For one, most bags of microwave popcorn are lined with perfluorooctanoic acid, a chemical thought to raise risk for cancer (though the jury is still out). Many microwave varieties with a “buttery taste” contain partially hydrogenated soybean oil, or trans fat.
Research has linked a high consumption of trans fats to Alzheimer’s and heart disease, and the evidence is so strong that the FDA is considering banning the fat. In some brands of popcorn, the buttery flavoring also comes from diacetyl, a chemical that has been linked to lung disease.
Instead, make your own popcorn. Place popcorn kernels inside a plain brown paper lunch bag.
Fold the top down a few times. Then microwave for two to three minutes, until the popping starts to abate. Voilà. Microwave popcorn without the trans fats and chemicals.
That’s because it combines several brain-health prescriptions into one.
If you dance with a group or a partner, you are exercising social smarts.
If you are learning new steps, you’re also boosting your intellectual fitness.
Dance, by nature, is fun, which helps to reduce stress.
Ballroom dancers have performed higher on tests of cognition than did nondancers, and competitive ballroom dancers have scored higher on many different measures of cognitive performance, including reaction time.
In a smaller study done in Germany, 60- and 70-year-olds who took art classes improved their scores on tests of psychological resilience over 14 weeks, indicating that their ability to cope with stress had grown.
Also, fMRI (functional MRI) scans revealed that their brains had sprouted new connections in areas that tend to lose connections with increasing age.
This is important because type 2 diabetes can raise your risk of dementia. The spice has also been found to reduce blood cholesterol and inflammation, both of which can further reduce your risk.
Cinnamon can help you add some sweetness to foods without using sugar.
Sprinkle it on oatmeal, fruit, pancakes, and coffee, and experiment by adding it to other main-course dishes like chili.
When Allison Harvey and Suzanna Payne of England’s Oxford University asked 50 insomniacs to try different distraction techniques on different nights, it was the waterfall visualizations that came out on top.
Study participants who pictured waterfalls nodded off 20 minutes faster than others who counted sheep or did nothing in particular.
Patients who participated in these sessions were still able to perform the tasks of daily living, such as eating or using the bathroom, unassisted, after 12 months.
Residents who did not participate in the sessions lost ground in their ability to perform these tasks without help.
Being outdoors and surrounded by beautiful flowers can relax the mind.
Finally, gardening requires intellectual smarts to plant the right seeds in the right places at the right time of year, to prune plants when they need it, and to combat pests and other obstacles.
It involves leading your pet through a series of obstacles, ranging from catwalks to hurdles to tunnels.
It provides exercise for both of you and causes you to think quickly as you shout commands and use your body language to communicate with your pet.
Though it’s unclear why this fruit might help, one theory holds that it is high in serotonin.
Set a timer to buzz every half hour. Get up and stretch, do some light calisthenics, or go for a short walk for a minute or two before sitting back down.
Stand when talking on the phone, while waiting for the bus or a plane, and while chatting at get-togethers.
Is Sally likely to get along with George? Do any of your guests have food allergies?
Cooking the dishes and ensuring that they’re all ready around the same time the guests arrive requires a great deal of strategic planning, which is a high-level intellectual skill.
With each recipe, you follow step-by-step instructions.
If you are doubling portions, then there’s also some math involved, and there’s plenty of measuring and estimating, too.
Try it now. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed. Focus on your breath. Notice how it feels as it comes in your nose and goes back out again. Don’t try to control it or change it. Just allow it to come in and out naturally.
If you notice other sensations, such as an ache in your back or an urgent thought about something on your to-do list, just keep returning to the breath.
Allow distractions to pass through your mind like clouds pass through a sky. Every time you notice yourself following your thinking, just redirect your mind where you want it to go.
Every time you return to the breath, you are training your concentration and bringing yourself to the present moment.
In addition to following the breath, you can try bringing your awareness to a word (such as one or peace) or a location in your body (such as your heart).
You can also concentrate on an idea or belief, such as a feeling of gratitude, compassion, or love.
Or puree berries, watermelon, and other fruits, and freeze them.
In one study, college students who practiced yoga nidra for eight weeks experienced less stress, worry, and depression.
Other research shows that yoga nidra may also help to keep blood sugar in check.
This is an important finding because diabetes is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.
Find a class, or listen to a number of free sessions on the Internet.
Use your thumb or index finger to close off the right nostril. Inhale long and slowly through the left.
Then switch so that your finger closes the left nostril and breathe out through the right.
Then inhale through the right and continue to switch back and forth.
Not only will this and other deep-breathing exercises reduce your stress and tension, but they also offer a side benefit of strengthening your attention.
In one study, University of Wisconsin psychologist Richard Davidson, PhD, and Jim Coan, PhD, of the University of Virginia, told 16 married women that they were about to be shocked with electricity.
In some situations, as the women anticipated the shock, they were holding the hand of their partners or of a stranger. In other situations, the women were alone.
All the while the researchers studied what was happening in the women’s brains, using fMRI scanners.
The fMRIs showed that, when the women held their partner’s hand, they remained more relaxed than when they held the hand of a stranger.
When they anticipated the shock while alone, their stress response was highest.
It generally starts to fall during the evening, reaching its lowest point during sleep, and this fall in temperature is one of the mechanisms that cause us to feel sleepy.
You can enhance the sleepiness induced by the body-cooling effect by taking a warm shower or bath in the evening.
The shower warms you by a degree or two. But then the warming effect wears off. As your body cools back down, sleepiness sets in.
In one small study, women who took a long, warm bath in the midafternoon to early evening felt sleepier at bedtime and slept more deeply, too.
Shower or bathe at least 90 minutes before bed to experience the best of the cooling effect.
In addition to helping induce grogginess, this can be a great way to unwind and relax away stress.
In a study by Israeli and American researchers and funded by the National Institutes of Health, Islamic women who prayed daily had a reduced risk of mild cognitive impairment compared with women who did not pray.
A different study by researchers at Arizona State University and the University of Utah found that people who considered themselves to be deeply religious or spiritual, prayed regularly, and attended religious services had lower cortisol responses and lower blood pressure than people who were less religious.
In one small study, 28 seniors who drank a tomato drink spiked with 750 milligrams of dried rosemary - somewhat more of the spice than you might typically ingest through normal culinary flavoring - performed better on a memory test given six hours later than seniors who did not ingest the spice.
Although such small studies are never definitive, they do point the way toward larger studies.
Even just smelling the herb may offer some benefit. Study participants who sat inside a cubicle that was infused with the scent of rosemary were able to solve a series of math problems more quickly than when they weren’t surrounded by the scent.
It’s thought that rosemary may boost brain function by preventing the breakdown of a key neurotransmitter in the brain.
Keep a potted rosemary plant in your kitchen, and use the herb to flavor everything from soups to roasted vegetables.
Puree some with olive oil to create a pesto.
You can also use the rosemary branch to skewer shrimp for grilling.
Switching back and forth between tasks - such as checking email repeatedly as you complete a work project - actually wastes time and makes you less efficient and productive.
Every time you take a break from what you are doing, you have to start the task at hand over mentally.
This mental restart can take anywhere from a few seconds to many minutes.
More than just ruining our efficiency, multitasking can cause us undue stress.
Other research has found that people who volunteer their time have a greater sense of purpose and improved well-being.
They also tend to have less trouble sleeping, less anxiety, and less loneliness. It may be that, by helping others, we get a boost in oxytocin or other brain chemicals, which seem to protect us from stress-induced health problems.
It’s no wonder studies have found that playing a musical instrument delays the onset of cognitive decline.
When researchers from Emory University tested the cognitive health of 70 older adults, they found that study participants with at least ten years of musical experience performed better on tests of nonverbal memory, naming, and many other cognitive processes than older adults with less training or no training at all.
In addition to helping keep your brain sharp, music lessons may also allow you to maintain fine motor skills, especially if you learn an instrument that requires complex finger motions.
When researchers offered piano lessons to older adults, the study participants were able to improve cognitive abilities - including attention, concentration, and planning - over just six months, compared with study participants who didn’t take lessons.
In one study, people who sniffed lavender before bed slept more deeply and felt more refreshed in the morning.
Sprinkle a few drops of pure lavender essential oil on a tissue to tuck under your pillow.
Find more simple tips by grabbing a copy of Outsmarting Alzheimer’s: What You Can Do to Reduce Your Risk by Kenneth S. Kosik, MD, and Alisa Bowman.
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