Failing brain health is considered a growing epidemic; it is estimated 3 out of 5 Americans will develop a brain disease in their lifetime. There is much we still don’t know about why people get brain diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s, but we do know certain things may help lower risk. Read below for what we can do now to protect against brain diseases when we are older.
Many people don’t think about the woes of an aging brain until signs of forgetfulness or dementia start to show. Like other chronic diseases, Alzheimer’s and possibly other forms of dementia can start to develop 20 years before symptoms appear. Therefore, it is important to consider maintaining brain health even while you are young.
Here are some simple things we can do NOW that may help protect your brain against chronic diseases.
Learn new activities
Learning new activities—a new language, playing an instrument, learning a new hobby, crafts, etc—can help stimulate new connections between brain neurons and may even stimulate the formation of new brain neurons.
Forming new neural connections is a key component for maintaining brain health. This can help improve neural plasticity by making the brain adapt to changing demands by altering its functional and structural properties.
Even simple things that challenge your brain like word games, math problems or even taking different ways home from work can help improve neural plasticity.
Learning new activities can be a challenge in our current pace of life where the norm can be to work, come home and watch shows, YouTube or be on social media until bedtime. Challenge yourself to learn new activities, skills, courses or crafts instead of spending most your time mindlessly looking at a screen.
You’ve probably heard of the Mediterranean diet: the traditional diet of countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. This diet has been associated with many health benefits including lowered risk for heart disease.
The DASH diet stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension and is also backed by research showing it can significantly lower blood pressure.
Combining concepts of these diets gives us the Mediterranean DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet. The MIND diet includes key components of both Mediterranean and DASH diets by focusing on a high plant intake.
Research from Rush University has found:
- MIND diet lowered the risk of Alzheimer’s by as much as 53 percent in participants who adhered to the diet rigorously, and by about 35 percent in those who followed it moderately well.
- The people who were most highly adhered to the MIND diet cognitively functioned as if they were 7.5 years younger than the least adherent group.
The MIND diet is basically high in plants, low in processed food diet. How to follow the MIND diet:
- Daily: Eat at least three servings of whole grains, a salad, one other vegetable and one glass of wine (optional).
- Snack on nuts most days of the week (about 1 handful).
- Every other day eat half a cup of beans (black, kidney, white, garbanzo, etc.).
- At least twice a week have poultry and a half cup of berries (particularly blueberries).
- Eat fish at least once a week.
- Use primarily olive oil at home.
- Minimize intake of red meats, butter/margarine, cheese, pastries.
Sitting too much during the day has been associated with an increased risk for heart disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases. Research from UCLA also suggests too much sitting could be harmful to brain health.
Being sedentary was shown to be a significant predictor of the thinning of the medial temporal lobe (MTL). The MTL is involved in forming new memories, and a thinning MTL is suggested to be a precursor to cognitive decline and dementia.
Researchers are continuing to study being sedentary and brain health. If you have a lifestyle that includes mostly being sedentary—sitting most of the day—find ways to break up long periods of sitting. Take walks around your office, stairs, get up and walk during lunch, etc. can be practical ways to break up sitting.
Exercise for brain health
Add brain health for the long list of why exercise benefits your health. Exercise increases blood flow to muscles and bones needed to move the body. Research from animals has also shown exercise can increase blood flow to the brain which may be a big reason why exercise is so beneficial for brain health.
Similar to learning a new activity, exercise can also help build and create neural connections in the brain and improve neural plasticity.
The other benefits of exercise related to heart health (lowered blood pressure, lower cholesterol) and release of feel-good endorphins may be other ways exercise benefits brain function.
Any type of exercise you enjoy can be beneficial. How can you get more exercise in your day?