Dear Savvy Senior,
Are there any proven strategies to preventing dementia? My 80-year-old mother has Alzheimer's, which has me wondering if there is anything I can do to protect myself.
-- Concerned at 53
While there's currently no cure for Alzheimer's disease, new research indicates that there are a number of healthy lifestyle strategies that can help most people reduce the risk of getting it.
According to the Alzheimer's Association, the key factors that increase the risk of getting Alzheimer's are advanced age, family history and heredity, but research shows that our general health plays a factor too. While we can't do much about our age, family or genes, we do have control over how we treat our body and brain.
Some medical experts even estimate that by following these healthy tips now, in middle age, you can actually reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer's by as much as 50 percent, or at least delay its onset by a few years. Here are the recommended strategies.
Manage health problems: Studies have consistently shown that Alzheimer's disease is closely related to conditions, like diabetes and heart disease. So, if you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes, you need to treat them with lifestyle changes and medication (if necessary) and get them under control.
Left untreated, these diseases over time will cause damage to the vessels that feed blood to the brain, making them more vulnerable to damage, and increasing your risk of dementia.
Exercise: Aerobic exercise increases blood flow to all parts of your body, including your brain, to keep the brain cells well nourished. So choose an aerobic activity you enjoy like walking, cycling, dancing, swimming, etc., that elevates your heart rate and do it for at least 30 to 40 minutes three times a week.
Eat healthy: A heart-healthy diet, like the Mediterranean diet, will also help protect the brain. A Mediterranean diet includes relatively little red meat and emphasizes whole grains, fruits and vegetables, fish and shellfish, and nuts, olive oil and other healthy fats. Also keep processed foods and sweets to a minimum.
Sleep well: Quality, restful sleep contributes to brain health too. Typically, adults should get between seven and nine hours of sleep daily. If you have persistent problems sleeping, you need to identify and address the problem. Medications, late-night exercise and alcohol can interfere with sleep quality and length, as can arthritis pain, sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome.
If you need help, make an appointment with a sleep specialist who will probably recommend an overnight diagnostic sleep test.
Challenge your brain: Research shows that mind challenging activities can help improve memory, slow age-related mental decline and even build a stronger brain.
But, be aware that mind-challenging activities consist of things you aren't accustomed to doing. In other words, crossword puzzles aren't enough to challenge your brain, if you're already a regular puzzle doer. Instead, you need to pick up a new skill like learning to dance, play a musical instrument, study a new language or do math problems - something that's challenging and a little outside your comfort zone.
Socializing and interacting with other people is another important way to stimulate the brain. So make a point to reach out and stay connected to friends, family and neighbors. Join a club, take a class or even volunteer - anything that enhances your social life.
Reduce stress: Some stress is good for the brain, but too much can be toxic. There's growing evidence that things like mindfulness meditation, yoga and tai chi are all good ways to help reduce stress.
For more tips, call the National Institute on Aging at 800-222-2225 and order a free copy of their booklet "Preventing Alzheimer's Disease: What Do We Know?"
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book.