Fifteen years ago research efforts were focused on finding a cure for Alzheimers, and while that still continues, science has since revealed clues as to how we might be able to protect our brains as we age.
The most important find is the discovery that Alzheimer’s can begin in the brain up to three decades before the first signs of cognitive problems. That slow build means you have time to reduce your risk of developing the disease—or, at the very least, delay it—even if you have a genetic predisposition.
Here are some tips and advice from the brain experts:
Exercise Your Mind
Cerebral cardio: If you want to reduce amyloid plaques in your brain, you need to work out on a regular basis. Aerobic exercise is associated with increased grey matter volume in the brain’s cortex, where memory networks are housed, according to J. Carson Smith, PhD, associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.
Physical activity can also help protect the hippocampus, another part of the brain essential to memory, from disease-related shrinkage. It stimulates the birth and growth of nerve cells in the area, increases vessel formation so blood can nourish these cells, and boosts levels of brain growth factors.
Mental toning: High-intensity strength training two or three days per week for six months improved brain function in people with mild cognitive impairment, according to 2016 Australian research. One theory is that the same hormonal responses that help you build muscle may also help your brain grow new cells.
Mind-expanding yoga: Yoga can help the brain, because stress hormones like cortisol are associated with decreased hippocampus volume and impairing memory. Furthermore, stress-induced inflammation is linked to neuronal damage. In a pilot study by Lavretsky, people older than 55 who participated in a weekly hour-long yoga session (plus 12 minutes of daily meditation) for 12 weeks reduced their stress levels and saw an improvement in verbal memory comparable to those who did only memory training.
Be Smart With Your Food Choices
Over 20 years of research has found that our cranium craves plants. That’s one principle behind the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet, a strategic combination of two brain-beneficial eating plans: the Mediterranean-style diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet.
Eating the Mediterranean way has been linked to preserving brain volume, while sticking to the DASH diet has been found to improve blood flow to the brain. Eating vegetables and nuts, limiting your consumption of animal products, saturated fat, and sugar have been shown in research to buoy brain health.
In fact, according to a 2015 study published in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia, people who were most faithful to the MIND diet enjoyed slower cognitive decline—the equivalent of gaining seven and a half healthy brain years. In a second study, that same group was also found to have a 53% reduced risk of Alzheimer’s compared with those who were least dedicated.
The MIND Diet’s 10 Brain-Boosting Foods
- Leafy green veggies (consume six servings per week)
- Other vegetables (consume one serving per day)
- Nuts (consume five servings per week)
- Berries (consume two servings per week)
- Beans (consume three servings per week)
- Whole grains (consume three servings per day)
- Fish (consume one serving per week)
- Poultry (consume two servings per week)
- Olive oil (use as your main cooking oil)
- Wine, preferably red (drink one glass per day)
Olive oil, nuts, whole grains, and leafy greens are rich in vitamin E, which is believed to protect against the buildup of toxic amyloid plaques in the brain as well as safeguard neurons from damaging free radicals.
Omega-3s like DHA help improve brain cells’ ability to communicate with one another. And it’s important to get enough vitamin B12, since a deficiency can lead to memory loss.
But be sure to avoid or reduce your intake of sugar, because a diet high in sugar can lead to obesity and eventually diabetes—both of which increase dementia risk. “I tell patients to cut added sugar as much as possible if they want a healthy brain” says Dean Sherzai, MD, PhD, codirector of the Brain Health and Alzheimer’s Prevention program at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.
Train Your Brain
Sudoku were once counted among the smartest ways to stay mentally nimble, these games tap only a very narrow component of your brain. It is therefore much more effective to focus on activities that use a complex array of mental processes. Research indicates that one way to strengthen your cognitive abilities is to continually learn and do new things, which may help build and fortify the neural connections that can slow brain ageing.
Try Something New: it doesn’t matter how good you are at something, it’s more important to try something new, so find something you’ve always wanted to try (whether it’s dancing, painting, pottery making) and go for it.
Just An Hour A Day: to potentially lower your risk of dementia, aim to spend at least an hour each day on mentally stimulating activities.
Socialise: Social connections can help build new brain cells and neural networks.