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10 steps towards a healthier brain

As a first step towards acceptance of the changes in my husband [after his diagnosis] I made a phone call to the Alzheimer’s Society of Calgary to sign up for a course. After explaining my intent, and before anything else was said, the person on the other end of the phone asked, “How are you doing?” So unexpected, so sincere, so compassionate, so moving. We chatted for a long time.

- A person who reached out to us

10 steps towards a healthier brain

10 steps towards a healthier brain

As of 2015, 47.5 million people worldwide are living with dementia, which is more than the total population of Canada. If nothing changes, this number is expected to increase to around 75.6 million in 2030. The number of Canadians living with dementia is approximately 747,000, of which 43,000 live in Alberta.

Advancing age is a known risk factor for dementia, and naturally, as we live longer our risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia, increases as well.

Alzheimer’s disease is the second most feared disease among aging Canadians. The fact that there is no cure for this disease, and no medication that can slow down, or halt the progression of the disease makes it more frightening. However, extensive research is happening in this area and some drugs that are currently being studied appear promising in early clinical trials.

One important question is- is Alzheimer’s disease inevitable as we age? Researchers unanimously say that Alzheimer’s disease is not a part of normal aging and that through a combination of healthy diet, exercise, other lifestyle strategies, and exercising the brain, it is possible to significantly reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.

Here are 10 easy practical steps towards achieving a healthy brain, based on the prominent Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study.

1. Engaging in 30-45 minutes of moderately intense exercise, such as walking or cycling at least 5 times per week offers the best protection against dementia. It has also been shown to slow down the progression of dementia.  Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, reduces depression, stimulates the formation of new nerve cells, and improves sleep.

2. Stimulating the brain through a variety of challenging activities such as learning a new skill, language or hobby or signing up for a course, can help maintain connections in the brain and make new connections, which is key to building up a high cognitive reserve.

3. Adopting a healthy diet such as the Mediterranean Diet or the MIND diet not only reduces the risk of dementia but also helps in slowing down cognitive decline in those with early dementia. The MIND diet consists of whole grains, vegetables including green leafy ones, fruits, nuts, beans, berries, oily fish, poultry, and olive oil,  and reducing the intake of meat, saturated fats, sugars, and fried and fast food.

4. Staying socially active offers significant protection against dementia by firing off those connections in the brain that otherwise lie dormant, making new connections, and by reducing depression.

5. Reducing stress by engaging in activities such as yoga, tai-chi, mindfulness meditation etc. is highly beneficial in promoting brain health.High levels of perceived stress – stress associated with hassles of everyday living and the ability to cope with the same – raises the risk of dementia significantly. Persistent stress is associated with accelerated nerve cell death in hippocampus, part of the brain critical for learning and memory.

6. Controlling risk factors for heart disease and stroke such as high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes and obesity can help reduce the risk of vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease significantly.

7. Seeking medical help if you experience symptoms of depression, such as unexplained fatigue, loss of interest in your favorite activities, difficulty staying asleep, etc. is extremely important. Untreated depression can increase the risk of dementia by 80%, by triggering an inflammatory process in the brain releasing neurotoxic compounds that can destroy nerve cells.

8. Getting a good night’s sleep is essential for brain health since poor sleep has been associated with amyloid deposition in the brain and worsening of cognitive symptoms.

9. Quit smoking since it causes narrowing of blood vessels in the brain, increasing the risk  for stroke and dementia

10. Limiting alcohol intake to the recommended guidelines of one standard drink per day for women of all ages and for men older than 65 years of age and two standard drinks for men below 65 years of age. Alcohol is a neurotoxin and excess alcohol consumption can worsen cognitive decline.

Thanks to extensive and ongoing research, we now know some of the lifestyle changes that we can make to reduce our risk of dementia. In the absence of a cure for dementia, prevention is still our best defense. This new year let us make brain health a priority and follow these ten steps to keep our brain healthy.

 

AUTHOR: Padmaja Genesh, Learning Specialist at the Alzheimer Society of Calgary

She holds a bachelor degree in medicine and surgery as well as a bachelor degree in Gerontology, and has spent several years teaching and working with health care agencies.