It’s a question on the minds of millions of older Americans: “Will I be diagnosed with dementia someday?”
Can anything be done to reduce the chance of cognitive decline as we age? Or are we at the mercy of the aging process? The World Health Organization (WHO) tackled these questions in an exhaustive study. The findings are revealing, sometimes frustrating, and very important. Their answers will be of great interest to older people who wish to stave off the risks for dementia. It will also be helpful for everyone who loves and cares for them.
The WHO asked this question: “For adults with normal cognition or mild cognitive impairment, are physical activity interventions more effective than usual care or no intervention in reducing the risk of cognitive decline and/or dementia?” It’s an important question — as the WHO reports that some 50 million people worldwide live with dementia.
A 2018 meeting of medical minds in Geneva identified seven key areas associated with slowing down or preventing memory and thinking tasks. Here are the highlights of the seven secrets to better brain health, as recapped in an article from Cognitive Vitality.
7 Strategies for Better Brain Health
- Get physical. Almost everyone knows that staying active can lead to a healthier body. But it’s become increasingly clear that physical activity boosts brain health, too. When we increase exercise, we also increase our odds of side-stepping cognitive challenges. We may even cut the risks of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Next question: How much does it help? The WHO evaluated the impact of aerobic exercise, training exercise, and exercise regimens that incorporate various modalities.
The Takeaway: Exercise has a positive impact on brain function, and aerobic training is most effective.
What to do: Every sort of physical activity counts, whether you think of it as “exercise” or not. This includes playing sports, working out, walking around the block, riding a bike – even scrubbing the kitchen tile. 65 or older? Go for a minimum of 2-1/2 hours per week of moderate physical activity, or 1-1/4 hours of more intense activity every week.
- Butt out. We have known about the health-harming damage of smoking cigarettes on our physical bodies for decades. But did you know smokers are more likely to develop dementia than non-smokers – and have a nearly 80% greater chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease?
The Takeaway: The WHO says quitting smoking is one of the wisest things you can do to potentially halt cognitive problems and dementia.
What to do: Explore the options as soon as possible. Look at behavioral as well as drug intervention techniques. The behavioral route can include counseling, mindfulness training, or cognitive-behavioral work. Nicotine replacement, bupropion, and varenicline are common drug therapies. Researchers report that a combination approach is often most effective. Contact your health professional to get started.
- Eat a brain-healthy diet. The same nutritious diet that leads to a healthy body can also build a happier brain. The World Health Organization suggests that a Mediterranean diet might lower the chance for cognitive decline and dementia. In fact, an optimal diet may lead to increased brain volumes along with improved cognitive function. (There are other diets, of course, including the DASH diet designed to help with hypertension, and the MIND diet, developed to encourage better brain health. The WHO currently endorses neither of these diets, but they are worth considering.) Interestingly, the WHO doesn’t suggest vitamins and other supplements – unless someone is suffering from a nutritional deficiency.
The Takeaway: Feed your brain right. Build your diet around fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains. Be careful with processed sugar and watch fats and salt. Limit red meat and full-fat dairy.
What to do: Search for Mediterranean, DASH, and MIND diets and look at their connection to brain health.
- To drink or not to drink? While certain studies indicate that low-to-moderate alcohol consumption might contribute to a healthy brain, drinking too much has been linked to memory problems. The WHO believes stopping excess drinking may lower the risk of brain health issues
The Takeaway: If a senior has lost control of their drinking, consider an intervention. Options include behavioral therapy, counseling, and treatment with medication.
What to do: Don’t ignore the problem. Alcohol use disorders are very common and nothing to be ashamed of. Cognitive behavior therapy, family counseling, and self-help groups can help and rarely have significant side effects. Drug treatments may be effective in assisting people in coping with withdrawal symptoms or in reducing the risk of a relapse. Discuss the options with a physician or counselor.
- Good things can happen when you train your brain. Did you know that certain types of brain training can reduce the risk of developing dementia? A leading research and outreach group called Cognitive Vitality shared the results of a decade-long study testing the effectiveness of several cognitive training regimens. In particular, a technique named speed-of-processing cut dementia risk by nearly 30 percent.
The Takeaway: While you may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, older individuals often benefit from lifelong learning. The WHO suggests cognitive training to lower dementia risk.
What to do: Stay active mentally and encourage those around you to do the same. Brain training is still an emerging field of study, but you don’t have to pour over a research paper before engaging in memory boosting activities..
- Get social. What do high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, and dementia have in common? Social isolation! Spending too much time alone and a lack of social engagement are connected to higher dementia risk. The WHO analyzed a trio of studies that looked at the relationship between social engagement and cognitive struggles. One study discovered that a “social activity intervention” boosted brain function.
The Takeaway: The WHO is not ready to recommend social activity as a proven strategy for reducing dementia risk, but they strongly encourage a more active social life as a key to life-long health.
What to do: Defeat senior loneliness and isolation with a more active social calendar. If necessary, stage a social intervention with your loved one.
- Don’t wait to lose weight. It’s common knowledge that being obese is connected to medical problems such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Cognitive Vitality also reminds us that individuals who are significantly overweight have a higher risk for cognitive decline than those of us with appropriate body weight.
The Takeaway: Losing weight may enhance certain cognitive functions. The WHO recommends weight management interventions for people in middle age. Lifestyle adjustments that encompass diet and physical activity are believed to deliver the most positive outcomes.
What to do: Improving attention span, memory, and language skills may result from managing weight and staying active. Incorporating movement into your daily routine can help you maintain a healthy weight.
There’s so much to think about – where do I start?
The WHO’s exhaustive study – summarized in a 400-page PDF – is impressive – and a little overwhelming. So here are some bite-sized nuggets to keep handy, brought to you by WHO and your friends at Cognitive Vitality: Exercise. Quit smoking. Eat for your brain. Mind your alcohol consumption. Get enough sleep. Alleviate stress. Be social. Keep learning. Watch your weight.
When’s the best time to begin? How about right now!