Lifestyle changes, such as exercise, a proper diet, and sleep, are ways to help you reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
A NoVA doctor says it’s never too early or too late to start incorporating healthy habits into your life to improve your brain’s health.
“The goal is to reduce the cumulative damage to your brain throughout your life so starting early is always better as you don’t want to wait until you’re 60 to do things that are healthy for your brain,” says Dr. Angela Hsu, a Kaiser Permanente geriatrician based in NoVA. “But it is never too late to start.”
There are currently more than six million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease in the United States. By 2050, that number is projected to increase to nearly 13 million, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. It’s a progressive neurological disorder where the neurons in your brain are damaged. Those responsible for memory, language, and thinking skills are the first to be affected. And the changes begin 20 years or more before some symptoms develop, the association said.
Get Your Body Moving
Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet for dementia. But it may come as no surprise that physical exercise can have a big impact on brain health.
Hsu notes that just 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a day — such as walking, biking, or water aerobics — can reduce the risk of dementia by 30 to 40 percent.
“Exercising at a moderate intensity will get the blood pumping to your brain, which is very beneficial to building up strength and resilience,” she says.
And coupling that with a balanced diet is an additional benefit, Hsu says.
“A healthy diet such as the MIND diet, a modified version of the Mediterranean Diet, can reduce your risk for dementia by 10 to 20 percent,” Hsu adds.
Exercise Your Brain
In addition to exercising your body, you need to take part in activities and hobbies that will stimulate your brain as well, says Hsu.
“You want to make sure you’re doing things that you enjoy but that are also a bit of a challenge,” she says.
This could include gardening, learning a new language or more about a new interest, picking up a musical instrument, or just engaging in conversation with people.
Looking for something even easier? Pick up a new word puzzle or sudoku book next time you’re at the store. Or search for brain training games online.
“It can really be anything that challenges your brain to make new connections,” says Hsu. “After all, the more you learn, the more you have to lose.”
Prioritize Quality Sleep
Making sure that you are getting enough sleep is also key because sleep is important to brain and other body system functions.
Both inadequate sleep (less than six hours a night) and poor sleep quality from conditions such as sleep apnea have been associated with a higher risk of dementia, says Hsu. Dementia is the overall term for symptoms, such as problem-solving, memory loss, and other thinking skills. Alzheimer’s is one cause of dementia.
Sleep apnea causes interruptions to your breathing and can lead to not getting enough oxygen to your brain while sleeping.
“Sleep is a critical time for our brains when we are clearing toxins such as amyloid that can lead to dementia and consolidating memories,” Hsu says. “Lack of sleep and conditions like sleep apnea can impair these functions and increase inflammation in our brain.”
If you have signs of snoring or fatigue at night, it would be a good idea to get checked for sleep apnea by your doctor, Hsu says.
“And for people with insomnia, it is important to note that use of sleeping medications for insomnia are also associated with increased risk of dementia, likely due to the effects these have on important neurotransmitters,” Hsu says.
“Because of this, it is better to manage insomnia with lifestyle measures and sleep hygiene rather than rely on medications.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends several other lifestyle choices to reduce your risks. They include preventing and managing high blood pressure, managing blood sugar, not smoking, and drinking alcohol in moderation.
Hsu recommends doing as many things as you can to reduce your risks.
“The combination of all of these things together have been shown to have a real impact,” Hsu says.
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