Simple lifestyle modifications may help to improve brain resiliency and combat the early signs of Alzheimer’s
The early symptoms of Alzheimer’s can be subtle and often misinterpreted. In fact, many of the first signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease can be mistaken for normal aging.
Misunderstanding or forgetting directions isn’t uncommon, nor is misplacing your cell phone, but if these incidents become more frequent and are affecting your daily life, take note and take action — there are things we can do each day to make our brains more resilient, which in turn could help combat the early signs of Alzheimer’s.
Scientific research suggests focusing on the following four lifestyle choices and behavioral modifications that can make your brain more resilient to cognitive decline and dementia.
Diets to Improve Mental Power and Brain Health
Evidence continues to mount over certain diets that can promote brain health. Here we are going to discuss three of the most prominent diets in brain health that are supported by research and scientific studies.
The Mediterranean Diet
Long heralded as a diet that protects against cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer, epidemiology now suggests it can also help promote cognitive health, mitigating the risks of Alzheimer’s, by reducing inflammation and oxidative stress 1. This diet is rich in foods that are high in monounsaturated fatty acids found in olive oil, omega-three fatty acids found in fish and nuts, and fresh fruits and vegetables.
The DASH Diet
(Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension): Developed by the National Institute of Health, the DASH diet emphasizes high consumption of fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, whole grains, lean meats, nuts, and beans. It has proven to significantly reduce blood pressure in those with moderate hypertension 3. Hypertension damages blood vessels in the brain and is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s 4. In a study conducted by the Memory & Aging Project, 800 elderly participants were found to have significantly slower rates of cognitive decline thanks to the DASH diet.
The MIND Diet
Introduced in 2015 by Dr. Martha Clare Morris, a leading expert in nutritional epidemiology at Rush University Medical Center, the MIND diet includes the best foods for brain health from the DASH and Mediterranean diets 5. The diet emphasizes green leafy vegetables (rather than all vegetables), berries (rather than all fruit), nuts, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil, and moderate amounts of alcohol (preferably red wine). It suggests avoiding red meat, butter, cheese, pastries, sweets, and fried food.
Studies have found that all three diets are associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease 6. While more research is continually underway to determine dietary impacts on brain health, take note that all three of these diets include high levels of fruits, vegetables, fish, and legumes, and all three suggest avoiding processed foods, red meat, sweets, and sugars.
Chronic sleep deprivation and sleep disorders are associated with many health problems including cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, obesity, anxiety, and depression. A study published last month in Neurology adds Alzheimer’s disease to that list indicating that impaired sleep may be an early indicator of Alzheimer’s and contribute to an increase in cognitive decline.
The study investigated the relationship between sleep quality and Alzheimer’s by measuring markers of the disease in spinal fluid. “Cognitively normal” people with an average age of 63 and either a family history or genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s, completed a survey on sleep quality and provided spinal fluid samples. Researchers discovered that insomnia, sleep quality and other sleep problems, including daytime sleepiness were associated with altered levels of markers for beta-amyloid, tau, and inflammation in the spinal fluid, all of which are associated with Alzheimer’s.
If you don’t get enough sleep and suffer from insomnia, you may protect your long-term brain health and lower your risk for Alzheimer’s disease by establishing a bedtime routine, maintaining a regular sleep schedule. Talk to health care professionals about treating sleep apnea; don’t eat or exercise within two to three hours of bedtime and avoid over-use of sleeping pills and excessive alcohol consumption.
More than a million cases of Alzheimer’s disease in the United States have been attributed to a lack of exercise, and yet nearly one-third of Americans remain physically inactive 9. Strong research evidence shows that exercise benefits the brain and can reduce the risk of falls and age-related diseases, including dementia 10. Clinical trials have demonstrated that exercise reduces chronic inflammation and increases the release of a protein that is very good for brain cells 11. Exercise can also improve cardiovascular and metabolic health, which are also risk factors for Alzheimer’s.
Other observational studies have found that exercise is associated with a decreased risk of dementia, with exercisers being up to 28% less likely to develop any type of dementia and 45% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s 12. Meta-analyses of these studies suggest that physical activity, even at low-to-moderate levels, protects the brain as we age, cutting the risk of cognitive decline by more than a third 12.
Clearly exercise can help protect against brain aging and improve mental function, so avoid long periods of physical inactivity 13. The World Health Organization recommends that adults get at least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise every week. That translates into only 30 minutes, three to five days per week. Options for aerobic exercise include jogging, tennis, biking or swimming. Clinical trials also indicate that walking, tai chi, weight training and yoga, while not as aerobic, are muscle strengthening activities that can be very beneficial. Do what you enjoy. Consider wearing or carrying a fitness tracker; they’re a fun way to track your progress and stay fit!
Researchers at UC Berkeley have discovered that chronic stress can damage the brain by disrupting the delicate balance and timing of communication 14. Chronic stress also decreases the number of stem cells that mature into neurons.
Stress creates physical and mental distress in our bodies that when prolonged, can harm the brain, leading to fatigue, sleep disturbances, poor concentration, and memory lapses. When distressed, the body secretes stress hormones, muscles tense-up, heart rates escalate, and blood pressure can soar. Chronically high-levels of stress hormones can suppress the immune system and kill brain cells. As a result, older adults with a high level of stress have twice the risk of cognitive impairment.
Earlier this year, the Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention, Intervention, and Care reported that 35 percent of dementia cases could be prevented by fully addressing nine lifestyle factors 15. One of those is hypertension.
Studies suggest that hypertension increases the risk of both vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease 15. Keeping hypertension under control protects against cognitive decline. An analysis of several studies found that people who managed their hypertension had a lower risk of dementia and higher cognitive function 15.
Stress affects everyone differently, depending on past experiences and coping techniques. The good news is that it can be managed through diet, lifestyle changes, and medications.
Tools for reducing stress include:
- Practicing relaxation techniques such as mindfulness & meditation.
- Exercising regularly to get your blood moving and release endorphins.
- Not suppressing your stress and anxiety. Don’t let it simmer inside; talk to family and friends about it; acknowledging it is the first step in managing it.
- Taking a “time out. Take a few deep breaths and a few minutes of quiet time to decompress and regain your equilibrium.
- Listening to music that brings you joy.
- Having a cup of herbal tea.
- Learning from stress-inducing situations. What’s the lesson? How can you avoid or mitigate these stressful triggers in the future?
The key to cognitive health is to protect neurons from damage and promote their vitality. It is never too early to take steps to keep your brain resilient and prevent or address early signs of Alzheimer’s. Cognitive aging begins in our 20s; so many of the greatest risk factors for dementia are conditions that occur in mid-life 16. No matter what your age, know that proper diet, a good night’s sleep, exercise and stress management can help keep you healthy and wise.