From childhood, we’re taught there are things you can do to improve the health of your heart, lungs and gut: Eat more plants, avoid processed food, get regular exercise. But did you know that many of those same things—and other equally simple daily activities—can keep your brain healthy? And we’re talking where it really counts: In reducing your risk of developing the neurodegenerative diseases Alzheimer’s and dementia. Here are 8 things doctors say can slash your chances of dementia dramatically. Some are as easy as literally picking up the phone. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You Have “Long” COVID and May Not Even Know It.
Don’t Get Too Lonely. It Can Increase Your Chances of Dementia by 50 Percent
Want to cut your risk of dementia in half? Stay social. “Social isolation and loneliness have negative health impacts on par with obesity, physical inactivity, and smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and are associated with about a 50% increased risk of dementia,” says Scott Kaiser, MD, a board-certified geriatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, and director of geriatric cognitive health for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute.
Scientists aren’t sure why this is. Loneliness may cause chronic inflammation as part of the body’s stress response, damaging the brain. But recent research suggests that risk is reversible, says Kaiser. “Simply taking a moment to connect with someone—even through a brief phone call—can reduce feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression and deliver brain-protecting benefits,” he says.
Not sure how to start? Online services like CallHub have sprung up recently to help both volunteers, and the people they’re calling, increase their social connectivity.
Maintaining a Sense of Purpose or Meaning
One study which followed several hundred people over time found that those who scored high on an assessment of purpose in life were 2.4 times more likely to remain free of Alzheimer’s disease than people with low scores, says Kaiser. Preserving a season of purpose or meaning seems to keep your brain healthy, even if it’s been physically damaged. “Here, and in many similar studies, the positive impact of purpose is two-fold: both through a reduction in actual pathologic changes (things that might be seen on a brain scan) and improvement in cognitive function (performance on questions to assess brain function) irrespective of the underlying condition of the brain.”
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“Research on volunteerism clearly demonstrates its rich benefits and its powerful role as a valuable ingredient for healthy aging,” says Kaiser. One 2013 study found that older people who participated in volunteering had a lower risk of hypertension, physical disability, cognitive decline and mortality.
Other studies suggest older people might particularly benefit from mentoring or foster grandparent programs. Helping young people with problem-solving, academic work and professional development may help keep volunteers’ brains young as well.
“Experts in the field of aging agree that there’s a tremendous opportunity to improve public health if we can get older people engaged, feeling purposeful, and giving back,” says Kaiser.
Stop Thinking That Being Older Means “Game Over”
“Having a positive view of aging is associated with both living longer and living better,” says Kaiser. He points to research done by Becca Levy, a Yale psychology professor and leading researcher in the psychology of aging. In one of her studies, participants who had positive self-perceptions about growing older lived 7.5 years longer and had lower rates of Alzheimer’s disease better than people with more negative views.
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Exercise Your Brain and Body Together
“The benefits of regular physical activity are so numerous, especially for our brain health, that in a sense exercise is the closest thing we have to a miracle drug,” says Kaiser. “When it comes to brain-healthy exercise, evidence suggests that there is an added boost when you combine aerobic and cognitive challenges.” For example, practicing a new dance routine provides a cardio workout, while your brain benefits from learning steps and staying coordinated.
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Eat More Fruits and Vegetables
“An extensive and growing body of research demonstrates the brain-health benefits of certain foods, especially those rich in certain antioxidants and other neuroprotective compounds,” says Kaiser. In several studies, higher levels of flavonoid intake have been associated with a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. “These phytonutrients—chemicals that plants produce to keep themselves healthy—can actually reduce brain inflammation, protect brain cells from injury, support learning and memory, and deliver other obvious benefits for brain health,” he says.
Some foods rich in flavonoids include berries, citrus fruits, leafy green vegetables, tea and dark chocolate.
Get Better Sleep
“There are entire books that only begin to scratch the surface about the critical importance of a good night’s sleep for brain health,” says Kaiser. “The quantity and quality of sleep have profound physiological impacts that impact our day-to-day thinking, memory, and mood as well as our long-term risk of cognitive decline and dementia.” This could be because during sleep, the brain clears itself of debris, resets neural networks and provides downtime to various systems.
One sleep disorder in particular—obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)—has been linked to an increased risk of dementia, says Frazier, who notes that up to 75% of severe cases may be undiagnosed.
Symptoms of sleep apnea include snoring, observed irregular breathing during sleep, daytime sleepiness, or waking with a dry mouth or sore throat. A healthcare provider can diagnose sleep apnea and prescribe effective therapy that can protect your brain health.
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Stay (or Get) Creative
“Singing, playing an instrument, painting, or writing a poem, are just a few examples of the type of creative expression that improve brain health,” says Kaiser. “And while certain activities, like playing an instrument throughout your life, are associated with a reduced risk of dementia, there are benefits to the arts and creativity at any age. It is never too late to try something new.” And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don’t miss these 35 Places You’re Most Likely to Catch COVID.