With Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia on the rise, it’s easy to worry when you forget where you left your keys or take longer learning a new skill. Both are examples of natural cognitive changes that come with aging. But it’s possible to keep your brain healthy and high-functioning throughout your lifetime.
Science has led to remarkable reductions of heart disease and cancer deaths, resulting in longer lives but also a dramatic increase in dementia, a condition where research has yet to produce big breakthroughs. Already, more than 6 million Americans are living with dementia, a number expected to rise to nearly 13 million by 2050.
The numbers are scary, but the good news is you can act to postpone memory loss associated with dementia. In one large, 10-year study of older subjects (average age 72), researchers identified six brain-protecting strategies and found that those who followed at least four of them showed a slower rate of memory decline.
Here are the six lifestyle changes— plus one that may surprise you – that can help to delay memory loss.
Eat Healthy Foods – and Drink Tea
A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, grains and healthy fats (olive oil and nuts, for example) promotes healthy blood vessels, reducing the risk of vascular dementia, the second most common type of dementia after Alzheimer’s. It’s pretty simple: Good blood circulation in the brain reduces the risk of strokes, a leading cause of brain injury.
You might consider the MIND diet, which combines elements from the Mediterranean and DASH diets. In one study, those who followed this diet moderately reduced their risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
You should also drink tea. Repeated studies show people who drink tea have significantly less cognitive decline than non-tea drinkers. One study found that those who drank tea one to four times a week had 37 percent less cognitive decline.
Regular aerobic exercise — about 150 minutes a week — improves attention, memory, information processing and other cognitive functions. It also lowers the risk or slows progression of dementia. Improved blood circulation is certainly one reason for this effect. Another is that exercise boosts neurogenesis — the creation of new neural cells. Exercise stimulates several growth factors related to production of these new cells in the hippocampus, critical for learning and memory. In other words, exercise makes your brain bigger.
Don’t Smoke – or Stop if You Do
Cigarette smoking makes your brain smaller, a physical change associated with a higher risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Compared to people who never smoked, smokers have smaller total brain volume and smaller volume of gray matter, the outer layer of brain tissue. Gray matter processes and releases new information to other parts of the brain, enabling you to control movement, memory and emotions.
Smoking also decreases the amount of oxygen delivered to the bloodstream, replacing some of it with more than 7,000 chemicals, hundreds of them cancer-causing.
Stop Drinking Alcohol
Alcohol contains chemicals that affect the central nervous system, including the brain. In the short term, alcohol makes it harder for neurons to relay messages to one another and affects brain areas controlling balance, memory, speech and judgment. Other potential effects include:
- Changes in metabolism, heart functioning and blood supply
- Reduced absorption of vitamin B1, an important brain nutrient
- Greater likelihood of falls and accidents that injure the brain
While medical professionals have long recommended moderate drinking, newer studies suggest one drink a day won’t cause permanent brain damage, but more than one does. And some studies now advocate for abstinence.
Be Socially Active
Our brains are designed to interact with others almost continuously through communication, cooperation, competition and much more. Brain health suffers when these interactions are absent. Social isolation increases the risk of dementia by 50 percent, even in otherwise healthy individuals. Loneliness, a related symptom, impairs these cognitive functions:
- Immediate and delayed recall
- Verbal fluency
- Global cognition
- Information processing speed
Social interactions, on the other hand, stimulate very large areas of your brain. A conversation, for example, requires listening and processing information, responding with facial expressions to what you hear and planning your response. Meanwhile you may be attending to other conversations in the room, keeping several areas of the brain active at the same time.
A side note: Hearing loss is a common aspect of aging. Untreated, it often contributes to social isolation.
While there is no strong evidence that brain-challenging exercises reduce a person’s risk of developing dementia, there is an association between educational attainment, occupational complexity and dementia: People with higher levels of education and more complex occupations survive longer without developing dementia.
Still, brain exercises can improve specific cognitive tasks and help with daily activities. Ordinary tasks like reading, writing, playing card games or studying a new language will all do the trick.
BONUS TIP: Online activity
Here’s a nugget of good news. A May 2023 study of older adults found that those who regularly used the internet for about two hours a day experienced about half the risk of dementia as non-regular users.
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