Ward off Alzheimer’s with these fun, simple strategies that help keep your aging brain RAZOR SHARP
Written by Dr Fred Pescatore, M.D
Let’s face it: If New Year’s resolutions were as easy to keep as they are to make, most of us would have run out of room for self-improvement a long time ago.
But that doesn’t mean you should stop making them. Instead, maybe it just means you need to add a positive TWIST!
And that’s exactly where I come into the equation.
Because the optimist in me is always looking for new and fun ways to make positive change stick, once and for all.
Luckily, I find spinning these resolution “chores” into “enjoyable tasks” rather easy.
And that’s especially true when it comes to delaying, preventing, and fighting cognitive decline—a goal that we should ALL put front and centre as we age.
So, let’s first discuss why boosting your brain (and protecting your memory) belongs on everyone’s resolution list this year.
Then, I’ll share some of my favourite, FUN, brain-saving strategies. After all, dementia prevention doesn’t always have to be intimidating, or even difficult…
There’s no age limit on cognitive decline
First and foremost, memory loss isn’t just a problem for seniors over the age of 65 anymore. In fact, worldwide rates of young-onset dementia are a lot higher than anyone ever saw coming.
A recent, large meta-analysis showed that there are currently nearly four million people living with early-onset dementia. That adds up to a shocking 199 out of every 100,000 people between the ages of 30 and 64—which accounts for 175,000 younger people in the United States alone.
Now, I must admit that statistic is a tad misleading (as statistics often are), since most of these cases are occurring in the latter portion of that age bracket. But the point remains that dementia—and Alzheimer’s disease (AD), in particular—is a growing problem across various age groups.
Of course, we tend to focus on AD because it’s the most common cause of dementia in the U.S. It kills more people every year than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined.
To make matters worse, deaths from Alzheimer’s have jumped 16 percent since the COVID pandemic began… costing the nation more than $355 billion in 2021 alone.
So when I say that brain health should be top of mind for everyone (pun intended), I mean it. Fortunately, preventing dementia and Alzheimer’s can be a walk in the park. And yes, I do mean that literally…
Regular movement protects your memory
The simplest solution for protecting your brain is one that I’m always encouraging you to make time for: Exercise.
New research shows that a year of moderate-to-vigorous aerobic exercise training could boost cardiorespiratory fitness, blood flow to the brain, and memory and executive function in patients with mild cognitive impairment (MCI).2 Meaning that consistent exercise may also help to lower Alzheimer’s risk.
So—what makes this solution “fun”?
Well, we’re not talking about back-breaking workouts here. At the beginning of the study, subjects took just three brisk walks, for 25 to 30 minutes each, per week. By the 11th week, the walks had increased to 30 to 35 minutes, uphill. And after six months, subjects walked 40 minutes, five times weekly.
That’s right… no gym equipment, no running, no heavy weights—just plain ole’ walking. I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of a more enjoyable way to break up my day. (Not to mention, it’s an easy way to get outside in nature for some fresh air!)
But the good news doesn’t stop there. Yet another recent study shows that both walking and dancing can bolster your brain’s white matter—and potentially protect cognition and memory as you age.
Walking and dancing keep the white matter in shape
White matter connects and supports the cells in our brains. It allows for proper brain function—and deficits could lead to memory impairment. But according to this new research, white matter remodels itself when we become more physically active. An inactive, sedentary lifestyle, on the other hand, could cause it to shrink.
To analyse these effects, there was a control group that participated in supervised stretching and balance training three times weekly. Another group walked together three times a week, at a brisk pace, for about 40 minutes. And a third group took dance lessons three times a week.
After six months, both the walkers and the dancers were aerobically fitter. Their white matter also increased, both in size and nerve fibres. Meanwhile, the control group saw decreases in white matter.
These results tell us a couple of things: First, that the brain can change, for better or worse, based on what you are and aren’t doing—so it’s never too late to take control of (or to lose control of) that path.
This also means that the structure and function of your brain doesn’t have to decline with age. Once again, this study shows that regular, enjoyable exercise will lead to greater brain volume. So, lace up those shoes and hit the dance floor or an outdoor trail. Your white matter will thank you for doing so. Speaking of the great outdoors…
Support Gray matter with the great outdoors
Clearly, taking a nice, brisk walk outside can offer powerful protection for your brain. And now, the results of yet another recent neuroscientific study show that regularly going out in the fresh air has a positive impact not only on your brain structure but also on your mental health and mood—even if you’re only outdoors for a short time.
In this study, brain scans of six middle-aged participants revealed that time spent outside increased gray matter volume in the part of the frontal lobe linked with planning, regulation, and cognitive control. (Gray matter impacts your memory, among other functions.)
This positively influenced concentration, memory, and the overall psyche for the better—regardless of other factors.4 And I can’t say I’m surprised.
As you know, I despise winter weather. But it always makes me feel better to get up and outside—even on the coldest, most hateful of days. (That’s a good thing for my dog Remington, who needs to go outside no matter what the forecast is.)
And the one good thing about the pandemic is that many people increased their outside walk times. So, here’s your reminder to keep going!
Of course, there are plenty of enjoyable ways to give your brain a workout without stepping foot out the front door, too. So let’s talk about those now…
Play cards, do crosswords or curl up with a book
Get this: Simply continuing to use your brain in old age could delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease by as much as five years.
That’s right! According to another recent study, older adults with the highest levels of cognitive activity in late life experienced the onset of Alzheimer’s-type dementia at an average age of 94. Those with the least levels of cognitive activity, meanwhile, experienced the onset at an average age of 89.
So—how can you help obtain those five extra good years?
Well, the activities in this study were focused on seeking or processing information: reading (newspapers, magazines, or books), number of annual library visits, writing letters, and even time spent playing games (like puzzles, cards, and board games). All things that a lot of us love to do anyway!
But the best part of these findings is that they show it’s never too late to start tending to your cognitive health—a common theme today. Because the average age of the study participants here was 80 years old!
In other words, this research shows that the age at which you might develop dementia is mainly determined by the activities you do in later life. So please, choose how you spend your time wisely.
Because while there’s no cure in sight for dementia— nor are there safe, effective medications to help treat it—simple, enjoyable, lifestyle changes can help keep it at bay.
Walking, dancing, reading, and playing are just a few fun things that can make a world of difference. Plus, they’re so enjoyable that this is one New Year’s resolution that’s sure to stick well past the first few months of 2022.
So, if you value your memory and independence, start taking the steps outlined here today (literally!) to improve them—for years to come.