If you’re worried about keeping your brain healthy and staving off dementia, new research is pointing to three lifestyle changes you can make.
Keep your brain sharp with cognitive training, manage your blood pressure levels and always make time for exercise, American scientists say. While studies are still confirming their effectiveness, the study suggests they offer a “modest” effect in keeping dementia away.
“There is good cause for hope that in the next several years much more will be known about how to prevent cognitive decline and dementia, as more clinical trial results become available and more evidence emerges,” Dr. Alan Leshner, CEO emeritus at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said in a statement.
Leshner is also chair of the committee that pulled together the report.
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“Even though clinical trials have not conclusively supported the three interventions discussed in our report, the evidence is strong enough to suggest the public should at least have access to these results to help inform their decisions about how they can invest their time and resources to maintain brain health with aging,” he said.
In 2010, another review committee decided there was “insufficient evidence” to make recommendations about how to keep your brain healthy and away from disease. Since then, research has come a long way, though.
“The evidence is getting stronger that there are things we can do to potentially lower our risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. Previously, before this evidence came to light, people … said it’s luck of the draw if they’ll get this disease and there was a real sense of helplessness and lack and control,” Mary Schulz, director of education at the Alzheimer Society of Canada, said.
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Now, the scientists are pointing to three measures people can take:
This includes problem solving, memory and speed of processing. It’s supposed to delay or slow age-related cognitive decline. Right now, research suggests that cognitive training can improve performance on a task, at least in the short term.
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Learn a new language, take up chess or even take piano lessons. Stimulating your brain helps to reinvigorate it, Schulz said.
“It’s something new and it wakes up your brain, giving it a jolt and startling it. You’re also teaching it to adapt, and be flexible as you have messages fired around in your brain in a way it doesn’t normally,” she explained.
Managing blood pressure
Avoiding high blood pressure is key, especially in your middle years, between 35 to 65 years old, the scientists say.
It prevents stroke and heart disease, and in turn, prevents Alzheimer’s-type dementia.
Keep in mind, last year, Heart & Stroke doctors warned that there’s an “increasingly powerful” relationship between stroke and dementia.
“Stroke and dementia need to be studied together because in some ways they are one and the same,” Dr. Andrew Demchuk, director of the Calgary Stroke program and spokesman for the foundation, said.
“Stroke causes brain cells to die and this can precipitate dementia or worsen pre-existing dementia. There are different causes of dementia, and research now shows that stroke is a major contributor,” Demchuk said.
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Stroke happens when blood stops flowing to parts of the brain, causing cells to die. Having a stroke more than doubles your risk of developing dementia later on in life.
Out of every 100 stroke patients without a past history of dementia, 16 are likely to develop dementia after their first or subsequent stroke.
Physical activity comes with handfuls of benefits, including stroke prevention – they all benefit brain health.
The review pointed to a number of randomized controlled trials that found exercise being effective in keeping away cognitive decline.
You don’t need to run marathons to keep dementia at bay, but doing some form of physical activity goes a long way in keeping your brain young.
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Exercise gets your heart rate up, which increases blood flow to the brain, nourishing cells with nutrients and oxygen. It also encourages the development of new cells, all factors in reducing your risk of stroke, Schulz said.
Gym memberships aren’t necessary — walk to the grocery store instead of driving, take the stairs instead of the escalator and get off of the bus two stops ahead on your way home.
Your brain is just like your heart. They’re both muscles that need to be given a workout to stay healthy.
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Read the full report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.