Ten lifestyle changes you can make today to significantly reduce your risk of dementia and futureproof your health.
Alzheimer's disease is a huge concern the world over. It's a complex disease with multiple risk factors that researchers are still working to identify. But promising research shows that some simple but effective lifestyle changes can significantly reduce your risk of developing the disease.
A healthier lifestyle can also help to prevent cardiovascular disease, such as stroke and heart attacks, which are also risk factors for Alzheimer's.
Evidence suggests that one in three cases of dementia could be prevented if we were able to eliminate certain risk factors, says Dr Carol Routledge, director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK (ARUK).
Although age and genes are out of your control, introducing or building these habits into your daily life will help you maintain a sharp mind. Here are our 10 scientifically backed tips for leading a brain-healthy lifestyle.
Eat a balanced diet
Healthy eating may reduce your risk of Alzheimer's as well as other conditions, including type 2 diabetes, obesity, stroke, and heart disease.
Alzheimer's has been called 'diabetes of the brain' due to inflammation and insulin resistance damaging the neurons. Impaired neurons cannot send or receive messages effectively, which can lead to confusion, forgetfulness and difficulty with speech and understanding.
However, adjusting your eating habits can help to reduce the inflammation and protect your brain.
Some tips for healthy eating
1. Eat plenty of fruit and vegies
Stock up on leafy greens, berries and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli. Starchy vegetables such as potatoes are best in smaller quantities. Eat a range of colours to increase antioxidants and vitamins.
2. Cut down on sugar
Spikes in blood sugar levels can lead to inflammation in the body.
3. Increase your intake of omega-3 fats
Foods high in this include:
- or take a fish oil supplement.
4. Eat a Mediterranean diet
Enjoying a Mediterranean-type diet and increasing physical activity have been independently associated with lower rates of Alzheimer's disease.
A new study has found a link between obesity in midlife and a greater risk of dementia later in life for women.
Researchers discovered that those obese at the start of the study – led by Dr Sarah Floud of the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford – were found to have a 21 per cent higher risk of developing dementia in the long-term than those with a desirable BMI.
Research has shown that regular aerobic exercise can enhance brain and cognitive functions that are particularly sensitive to being affected by Alzheimer's disease.
The study followed 23 people with a genetic predisposition to Alzheimer's disease; half carried on with their regular exercise regime and the other half trained on a treadmill three times a week for 26 weeks. Those who upped their exercise performed better on cognitive tests measuring executive function. Executive function is known to decline with the progression of Alzheimer's. So, researchers recommended hopping on the bike or hitting the trail for around 150 minutes weekly to prevent or delay the decline.
Run, swim, cycle, walk, take two stairs at a time, rollerskate, ice skate, garden incessantly – it’s about keeping your body moving.
Stick to your health check-ups
Data from an extensive health insurance screening program has shown growing evidence of a link between oral health and a raised risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. People suffering from severe gum disease, or periodontitis, are more likely to go on to develop Alzheimer's, so it's important to stick to your regular dental check-ups.
Evidence of a link between dementia/cognitive decline and hearing loss has also been mounting up over the years. Research shows that even untreated mild hearing loss can double the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. However, studies show that proper diagnosis and management of hearing loss, through the use of hearing aids, can reduce the risk and impact of the disease.
Thankfully, hearing aids have come a long way in the past few years. Modern devices are significantly smaller and more efficient than their older counterparts, and they don't just potentially slow down the onset of dementia; they can also dramatically improve quality of life. A hearing check can identify any issues right away.
If you find yourself lying awake at night or waking very early after only a few hours of sleep, it may be time to change your sleep schedule. Experts have always claimed that we need around eight hours of sleep each night, some people can function on seven hours, others need closer to nine!
A small study was carried out by Dr James Pickett, head of research at Alzheimer's Society; the findings suggest that people who have fewer hours of deep sleep are more likely to show early signs of Alzheimer's disease.
Some studies have shown that deep sleep is linked with greater toxin clearance from the brain. Other studies have linked poor sleep quality or sleeplessness to increased levels of tau protein and inflammation in the spinal fluid, which have both been linked to Alzheimer's disease.
To protect your brain and lower your risk for Alzheimer's disease by increasing your likelihood of falling into a deep sleep, keep these things in mind:
- Build a regular sleep schedule. Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day reinforces your natural circadian rhythms. Your brain and body both like routine.
- Remove distractions from the bedroom. Ban TV and electronic devices from the bedroom to make it an inviting place to sleep.
- Try a relaxing bedtime routine. Take a warm bath or shower, do some light stretching, listen to relaxing music or read instead of watching stimulating TV. Doing these things can send a signal to your brain that it's time to wind down.
- Avoid eating a large meal or exercising two hours before you want to sleep. Exercise is great, but working out too close to bedtime can hinder sleep due to increased body temperature, higher heart rate and an adrenaline release.
- Get tested for sleep apnoea. If you've been told you snore, or find yourself waking up multiple times a night, you may have sleep apnoea. Treatment can make a difference to your health and sleep quality.
- Try to quiet your mind. If you find yourself lying awake with stress, anxiety or worry, get out of bed to read or meditate in another room to try to relax. Another thing to try is to keep a journal by your bed and write everything that's worrying you down before you sleep, so that you can think about it in the morning. Often, things don't seem so bad in the light of day.
Giving up those cigarettes will have significant benefits for your overall health. Smoking increases the risk of vascular problems such as strokes and smaller bleeds in the brain, which are risk factors for dementia. Toxins present in cigarettes have been shown to increase oxidative stress and inflammation in the body, both of which have been linked to the development of Alzheimer's.
Stimulate your mind
Using your brain to complete challenges stimulates and strengthens the connections between the neurons. Keeping these bonds strong and healthy by multitasking, learning a language, completing crosswords and Sudoku puzzles, playing memory games, etc. will reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer's later in life.
YourLifeChoices offers free trivia and daily crossword puzzles to keep your mind active.
Join a like-minded community
Human beings are social creatures; our brains and bodies don't thrive when isolated. Reach out to your neighbours, find a new exercise or craft class, join a walking group, or connect with others through an online community.
“Research findings suggest social isolation and a lack of mental stimulation could contribute to cognitive decline and, therefore, raise the risk of developing dementia,” notes Dr Routledge. “Keeping mentally active by learning new skills or joining clubs can also be a good way to connect with other people and improve mental wellbeing, helping you to be happier and more positive in life.”
So, yes, doing the crossword, reading a book, trying a new language and picking up an instrument can all help, but even better, do all of those things alongside other people.
Stress can have severe and harmful consequences, not just for our general health but for the brain specifically. Research has been carried out on the link between stress and shrinkage in the brain, especially in an area linked with memory. Incorporating these stress management techniques can help to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.
- Try a breathing meditation. Even something as simple as focusing on breathing into your abdomen instead of your chest can ease a stress response.
- Try a yin or restorative yoga class. Yoga has a myriad benefits, including helping you to unwind and reverse the damaging effects of stress.
- Build fun and leisure into your schedule. Make time for those activities that bring you joy.
- Laugh more. The act of laughing helps your body relieve the symptoms of stress.
Takes steps to lower your blood pressure
Researchers say hypertension in older adults may cause tangles and plaques to form in the brain. Both have been linked to Alzheimer's disease through observational studies, but are not yet identified as a cause. But, taking steps to lower your blood pressure will increase overall health and help to reduce the risk of heart disease. For people already living with hypertension, studies have shown that those who are on blood pressure medication showed less cognitive decline than those who left it untreated. Most of the other suggested steps to lower blood pressure have already been mentioned in this article: exercise, maintain a healthy weight, eat a healthy diet and stop smoking.
Keep an eye on any changes in your memory
It is important to consult a GP as soon as possible if you are concerned about your memory, or you are worried about changes in the memory, personality or behaviour of someone close to you, so that an accurate diagnosis is made as quickly as possible.
What steps are you putting in place to reduce your risk of dementia, or do you already do most things on this list?
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Health disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.
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