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5 Ways to Help Keep Dementia at Bay

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The longer we live, the more at-risk we are for cognitive impairment.

woman post workout

There are 47 million people living with dementia worldwide, and that number is projected to increase to 75 million by 2030, according to the World Health Organization. While there is no guaranteed path to preventing it, there are lifestyle changes you can make no matter how old you are now to support and maintain your brain health down the road.

1. Exercise

There are likely a few reasons that working out can benefit the brain, according to Dr. Jason Karlawish, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and co-director of the Penn Memory Center. One is that it preserves vascular health — i.e. the health of your arteries, veins, and vessels — which in turn preserves the health of several organs, including the heart, kidney, and brain. Another explanation is that exercise may benefit the brain neurons themselves. “In animal models we tend to find that exercised animals compared to non-exercised animals have greater neural architecture and other things that we think are associated with or describe a healthy neuron,” Dr. Karlawish says. (Obviously more research needs to be done with humans, but it shows promise for future research.) Also, a recent report from the Global Council on Brain Health and AARP notes that there is a link between mental wellbeing and brain health — and exercise is a proven mood booster.

woman reading

2. Learn something new

By taking up a hobby or learning a language, for example, you’re stimulating your brain and keeping it sharper. But don’t feel like you have to engage in educational activities that don’t interest you in the service of brain health. “Most of my patients already have cognitive impairment, and well-meaning family members try to get them to do word search, crossword puzzles — but they don’t like to do these things,” says Dr. Esther Oh of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. “An activity that can be beneficial has to be sustainable.” Seek out stimulation that genuinely engages you, so you stick with it.

3. Stay social 

You don’t have to transform into an extrovert, but it’s important to stay in touch with friends and family and enjoy real conversation on a regular basis, Dr. Oh says. “People of all ages, including a lot of older adults, are spending more time in front of some type of screen — TV, iPad, phone,” Dr. Oh points out. “I think in a way that kind of contributes to social isolation, because if you’re spending a lot of time just watching a screen, you’re not really talking to anybody, you’re not interacting with other people.” You can also combine this with tip no. 2 by taking a class!

4. Watch your blood pressure

High blood pressure can lead to poor vascular health, which can negatively impact your brain. Exercise can help with lowering blood pressure, as can quitting smoking, managing your stress, and eating well. Speaking of…

mediterranean dish

5. Eat a well-balanced diet

Dr. Oh usually recommends the Mediterranean diet to her patients. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and fish, and low on red meat, it’s associated with lower levels of cardiovascular disease and lower markers of oxidative stress and inflammation. But Dr. Oh urges people to remember that diet alone isn’t the answer to keeping dementia at bay — nor is exercise alone or education alone. “Things that are shown to be effective are usually multi-pronged,” she says. In other words: try your best to do all of the above.

WHEN TO START

The sooner the better. If you can, Dr. Karlawish advises making these lifestyle changes from the moment you transition from childhood into adulthood. “Because some of [these behaviors] are really laid down early on in life,” he says.

That said, it’s never too late to start. “The more years of life we live, the more likely we are to develop cognitive impairment, and so it’s a very prevalent problem,” Dr. Karlawish says. “If we do the things that help maintain brain health, we’re modeling behaviors for our family and friends and colleagues that can help them promote their brain health — and the things we know can help maintain brain health are good in and of themselves.”