Aging can be scary, especially when it comes to the onset of dementia. More than 50 million people worldwide have the condition, and as that figure continues to grow, the prospect of developing dementia is hitting closer to home for more people.
No one ever wants to see their memory deteriorate or experience any of the other symptoms that come with dementia, like difficulty completing everyday tasks or changes in mood. But what if there were steps you could take now to help bolster your brain health and reduce your risk of developing dementia and other brain illnesses later in life?
Research in this area is still a bit inconclusive, but experts say it may be possible with careful attention to a few specific behaviors. Here are the main methods that give you more control over your future brain health:
Stay Physically Active
The next time you’re thinking of skipping your workout, find a bit of motivation in keeping your future memory intact. Research shows that physical activity isn’t just good for your body, it’s probably good for your brain too ― even if it’s something as simple as a 20-minute walk each day.
Exercise plays a role brain health for a number of reasons. Besides stroke prevention and supporting the health of your heart and blood vessels, it’s believed that exercise may increase the birth of new neurons and synaptic connections in the brain, particularly in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is important because it’s your brain’s central area for learning and memory and one of the first parts of the brain to be damaged in Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
Additionally, studies on mice have shown that exercise may play a role in reducing the amount of beta-amyloid proteins in the brain. Those proteins are the principle component of the plaques that accumulate at abnormal levels in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Mark Albers, an assistant professor of neurology at the MassGeneral Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease, recommended ditching the treadmill and instead opting to walk outside where your surroundings will change during your workout. And in addition to aerobic exercise ― think running, walking and swimming ― you should incorporate strength training into your routine as well, said Ronald Petersen, a physician and director of the Mayo Clinic Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.
“In terms of overall brain health and maybe even quality of life, I think these activities are beneficial,” Petersen said.
Keep Your Brain Busy
Just as an idle body is rarely good for your overall health, neither is an idle mind. Instead, you want to keep your brain busy and active as you age. The main way you can accomplish this is by maintaining social connections and engaging in intellectual activities, both of which help “form new connections in relevant areas of the brain where the Alzheimer’s disease process is eroding these connections,” Albers said.
Staying social can take many forms, whether it’s regularly meeting a friend for coffee, heading out to a party or hosting a group of people you’re close with. The important thing here is to keep your relationships strong, as growing evidence shows social isolation to be a risk factor for dementia.
Likewise, reading, brain games and other intellectual pursuits (now’s the perfect time to learn that new language!) may be good for you as well. Research shows these activities may play a role in slowing or delaying age-related cognitive decline. Keeping your brain healthy in this area will probably come easier if you approach it less as a chore and more as a way of staying curious and pursuing topics and activities you enjoy, Albers said.
“I counsel my patients to engage in activities that you are emotionally connected to, such as reading about gardening and trying to grow a new plant or two each year,” Albers said.
As with many studies involving brain health and aging, the research here is still a bit speculative. But it’s believed that these activities may play a role in enriching the brain’s connections between nerve cells, also known as synaptic connections, Petersen said. These connections are crucial to healthy brain functioning and help us form memories.
Eat A Healthy Diet
This should come as no surprise, but it’s worth underscoring over and over again. Research shows that eating right is good for every aspect of your health, including your brain. Your best bet here is a heart-healthy Mediterranean-style diet, which contains foods like fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, nuts and other types of healthy fats, and cutting back on meat and dairy. This way of eating correlates with better memory and cognitive outcome over time, Albers said.
Another reason the Mediterranean diet may be beneficial is that it’s a way to control midlife hypertension ― and research shows that blood-pressure management among people with hypertension may reduce the risk of cognitive decline and aging.
Ultimately, you can take control of your future health by not thinking of aging as something that happens later on. Instead, be proactive about your well-being now.
Petersen said that people should think of cognitive health and aging in the same way as they do cardiovascular health. Your lifestyle habits can prevent or postpone the progression of brain-related disease and decline. Dementia isn’t always an inevitable consequence of getting older.
“The data are not hard and fast on a lot of these factors, but I think the more people engage in some of these, the more likely they are to experience aging more positively and have a better quality of life,” Petersen said.