The statistics for Alzheimer’s disease in the U.S. are downright scary. Research from the Alzheimer’s Association estimates that 5.8 million Americans age 65 or older were living with Alzheimer’s in 2014. They project that number will jump to nearly 14 million by 2060.
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“Many of my patients fear developing Alzheimer’s disease, particularly if they’ve witnessed a loved one’s decline,” says preventive medicine specialist Sandra Darling, DO. “My aunt was diagnosed with late-stage Alzheimer’s in early 2016. By summer, she barely knew who we were. By the end of that year, she had lost her memory, and her ability to speak and interact with the world. No amount of medical training had prepared me for this.”
The causes of Alzheimer’s are often multifactorial and related to what we eat, our activity levels, the quality of our sleep and how well we manage stress.
The good news is you can do several things to protect your memory right now, Dr. Darling says. This is true even if you’re at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
“I recommend starting sooner rather than later,” Dr. Darling says. “The earlier you start, the more opportunity you’ll have to lower your risk.”
How can you strengthen your brain?
Dr. Darling says that keeping your body and mind active has been proven to lower the risks of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. Here’s how you can do that:
1. Play games (they’re not just for kids)
There are several online brain-training programs developed by scientists to challenge your brain in fun ways. Some science-backed options include Lumosity®, BrainHQ®, Happy Neuron® and My Brain Trainer®. These games can provide meaningful results, Dr. Darling says.
For example, in one study a group of healthy, older adults took part in a brain-training intervention. Participants took part in brain-training workshops for 10 sessions over six weeks. They then had four “booster” sessions about a year later, and four more sessions about two years after that.
Researchers say the participants showed immediate improvements in their memory, reasoning or speed of processing. Five years after the study, the group still showed significantly less difficulty in their daily living, like managing finances, compared to people who did not undergo the intervention.
“Brain training programs are designed specifically to improve mental performance, but in truth, any game or puzzle involving strategic thinking can stimulate and engage the brain,” Dr. Darling says
Solo options include crossword puzzles, Sudoku® or the math equivalent, like KenKen® puzzles. Board games or card games (think Blokus®, chess, bridge and many others) add the benefit of social interaction.
2. Get a move on!
Research shows that regular physical activity helps keep you mentally sharp by increasing blood flow and oxygen to your brain.
What’s the best form of exercise? Any active activity you’ll actually do!
Dancing, for example, will get your heart rate up and your blood flowing, and it can help strengthen neural connections between brain cells. Any style of dance will do — ballroom, square dance, line dance, 5Rhythms®, contra, Zumba® — the list goes on.
In a study of memory-impaired older adults, people randomly chosen to do one-hour ballroom dance lessons twice a week for 10 months improved in multiple areas of brain function, as well as mood and behavior.
Two left feet? No problem. Maybe running is your jam, or maybe swimming. Whatever activities get your heart pumping and bring you joy will bring on benefits to your body and brain. Switch it up or try something new. But most importantly, stick to an active lifestyle. Dr. Darling says 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, such as brisk walking, can protect against cognitive decline.
Take it a step further by engaging your brain as you exercise. While you’re walking on a treadmill or running down the sidewalk, challenge yourself to name as many states as you can. Or calculate how many hours are in a year. Whatever little brain task you give yourself, research shows that when you engage both your body and your mind, you can help improve your balance and your cognition.
3. Just breathe
As critical as it is to move your body, Dr. Darling says it’s equally important to sit quietly and just breathe. In our goal-oriented, multitasking society, carving out time to sit with your breath is important.
One group of scientists found that practicing mindfulness for an average of 27 minutes per day increased gray matter density in your hippocampus after just eight weeks.
The hippocampus — the part of your brain responsible for learning and memory — is an area that shrinks in Alzheimer’s disease.
Listening to guided meditations using a free smartphone app, or practicing diaphragmatic breathing or the 4-7-8 breath can quiet your mind, reduce stress and boost your brain — without demanding much of your time.
And it’s amazing that a meditation practice, requiring no special knowledge or skill, can have such profound results! Not only can meditation change the structure of your brain, but it can also change your life. You may notice:
- Better concentration.
- Sounder sleep.
- Improved mood.
- A sense of calm and well-being.
- Greater self-awareness.
4. Try new things
Learn a new hobby or skill. Maybe try taking a class. Pushing your brain to learn new things creates new pathways in your brain and keeps your mind sharp. It doesn’t have to be an academic exercise. Give woodworking a chance. Spend time gardening and learning about the natural world. Take time to do a puzzle or a word search. Learn a new language or musical instrument.
“New skills and habits build more connections between brain cells and strengthen existing connections,” Dr. Darling notes. “When we engage in stimulating activities, especially activities that require some brain power, it’s like exercise for the brain. These activities are not only fun, but they also serve an important purpose — to keep the brain sharp and prevent cognitive decline.”
5. Stay connected
Maintaining a robust social life and staying socially connected with others can bolster your brain function. When you communicate with others, you challenge your mind to interpret verbal and visual cues and respond to them accordingly. Social interaction can also improve your mood and, potentially, ward off depression, which is detrimental to your mental health, as well as your physical and cognitive well-being.
“Social isolation is a modifiable risk factor of dementia for adults over age 65. Being isolated has detrimental effects on mood and cognitive function,” Dr. Darling warns. “By staying physically, mentally and socially active, you can improve your brain health, regardless of your age.”