Alzheimer’s disease is a type of brain disorder that causes problems with memory, behavior, and thinking. It affects more than 5 million Americans and 50 million people worldwide. It’s a devastating condition that takes a major toll on sufferers as well as their caregivers.
Over time, many patients with this disorder develop debilitating cognitive problems. Although memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease can be mild early on, patients commonly develop more serious confusion and memory loss over time. They may also experience mood and behavior changes, disorientation, and difficulty speaking, swallowing, and walking.
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. However, adopting a combination of healthy habits and a personalized lifestyle approach promotes good brain health and can help you prevent the disease.
Lifestyle Habits Can Protect Your Brain
Science suggests that Alzheimer’s disease develops gradually over time. However, the disease is not an inevitable part of aging. The underlying problem appears to be neuroinflammation or imbalanced inflammation in the brain that damages nerve cells.
Scientists have been able to identify several modifiable lifestyle-related risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease, including hypertension, depression, and high cholesterol. A combination of healthy lifestyle habits can help prevent the development of these risk factors, protect the brain, and reduce your risk of cognitive decline.
Even if you have a genetic predisposition to develop brain disease or are exposed to risk factors outside of your control (such as air pollution), lifestyle medicine offers attainable, actionable recommendations that can help you live a healthier life. The more healthy habits you adopt, the lower your risk of cognitive decline.
In fact, research suggests that people who adopted at least four out of five of the following lifestyle behaviors over a six-year period had a 60 percent lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease compared to people who practiced only one or none of these habits. The researchers focused on these five lifestyle factors associated with a lower risk of dementia:
- Following a healthy diet
- Getting at least 150 minutes per week of at least moderate physical activity
- Not smoking
- Maintaining light to moderate alcohol intake
- Engaging in cognitively stimulating activities
This research offers hope for building a better brain as you age and preventing dementia. Incorporating a combination of healthy habits into your daily routine can help reduce inflammation and protect your brain health.
Here are seven key habits to protect your brain and overall well-being:
- Get regular physical activity.
- Learn new skills and engage in cognitive stimulation.
- Develop good sleep habits.
- Manage and reduce stress.
- Cultivate a supportive network of friends.
- Eat a balanced, anti-inflammatory diet.
- Abstain from smoking.
Let’s look at each of these habits in more detail.
1. Get Regular Physical Activity
Regular physical activity has a beneficial impact on brain health. Exercise helps activate brain plasticity (the brain’s ability to change its own structure as a result of experiences) and positive growth of connections in the brain while decreasing inflammation. These benefits seem to help preserve memory and brain function in healthy older adults as well as those with early signs of dementia.
An active lifestyle can make a difference whether or not you formally hit the gym. The more you move around as part of your daily life, the better it is for your brain health. In fact, research shows that consistent intermittent activity throughout the day, such as brief high-intensity interval training (HIIT) sessions, is more metabolically beneficial in maintaining and improving brain function than sporadic extended activity. HIIT involves relatively short bursts of vigorous activity that significantly elevate your heart rate, interspersed with rest or low-intensity recovery periods. HIIT can be performed with cyclical exercises such as bicycling, running, swimming, or other whole-body exercises that raise your heart rate.
2. Learn New Skills and Engage in Cognitive Stimulation
Your brain consists of hundreds of billions of nerve cells (neurons), which make hundreds of trillions of connections (synapses) throughout the brain and nervous system. These compose your neural network, or nervous system. The nervous system and brain have a remarkable capacity (neuroplasticity) to continue to grow, evolve, and heal even as you age.
Research shows that engaging in physically and mentally stimulating activities is an important element in strengthening cognitive reserve, which is the brain’s resilience and capacity to function even when there is damage to brain cells. Learning new skills and stimulating the brain on a regular basis boosts cognitive pathways between neurons and builds resiliency in brain function.
The resulting benefits of cognitive stimulation seem to offer protection against brain damage caused by insults such as exposure to air pollution and noise pollution, which have been linked to a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
3. Develop Good Sleep Habits
Your brain needs sleep and is remarkably active during this time when the body rests. Science shows that sleep is crucial for brain remodeling and function. It is the time when the brain focuses on removing metabolic waste products, processing information, and consolidating memories.
For example, research shows that the junctions between nerve cells, called synapses, grow during daytime stimulation and then shrink by nearly 20 percent while you sleep. This process serves to “reset” the brain to create room for more growth and learning the next day.
Getting regular, adequate sleep is necessary for good brain health. Without adequate sleep, humans experience cognitive deficits of many kinds, including attention issues and declines in the ability to learn and process information.
For maximum rejuvenation and brain function, aim for a minimum of seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Promote restful sleep by practicing a soothing evening routine to prepare your mind and body for sleep. Maintain a set sleep schedule and create a comfortable, healthy sleeping environment.
4. Manage and Reduce Stress
Chronic stress is a major cause of inflammation in the brain and body. Relentless emotional, physical, and psychological stress promotes unchecked inflammation and contributes to cognitive dysfunction. High levels of prolonged chronic stress are associated with an increased risk of cognitive impairment.
Stress management techniques—like mindfulness and meditation—are crucial for decreasing inflammation and supporting brain health and healthy aging. In fact, mindfulness and meditation offer many benefits for physical and mental health.
A regular meditation practice can help you to improve your ability to focus, positively shift your mood, and improve overall health. The brain-protective benefits of meditation might be related to neuroplastic changes in the structure and function of brain regions involved in the regulation of attention, emotion, and self-awareness, which occur in regular meditators.
5. Cultivate a Supportive Network of Friends
Social isolation can impair immune function and increase inflammation. These changes may contribute to the development or worsening of numerous health issues.
Research has found that loneliness is associated with an increased risk of dementia in older adults. A lack of social support is also associated with poor sleep habits, increased risk of depression, and other damaging effects on cognitive and psychological functions.
Having a supportive network of friends and meaningful social connections is crucial for a healthy, balanced life and brain. Be truly present with loved ones and make an effort to deepen your connections. Schedule quality time with friends to engage in activities you enjoy. Practice doing things for and with people you love, as well as random acts of kindness. Communicate consciously and compassionately to build healthier relationships.
6. Eat a Balanced, Anti-Inflammatory Diet
The food you eat can enhance brain function, prevent disease, and improve memory. Although each person is unique and has personalized nutritional needs, eating a variety of healthy foods in their whole-food forms provides your body with essential nutrients that protect, relax, and nourish your brain.
An anti-inflammatory diet centers on eating real, whole foods without added refined sugars, processed carbohydrates, and artificial ingredients. Incorporate a wide variety of colorful organic vegetables, natural fiber, essential phytonutrients, and probiotics to nourish a healthy microbiome and squelch excess inflammation.
There are certain foods that are especially supportive of cognition and healthy brain function:
- Regular walnut consumption boosts overall cognitive functioning by reducing inflammation and improving brain health.
- Curcumin in turmeric has neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory properties that help prevent the development of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease.
- The brain is largely composed of fatty acids, so it is not surprising that consumption of omega-3–rich foods like salmon and sardines are associated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
- Berries and cherries are rich in anthocyanins. These powerful antioxidants help prevent damage caused by free radicals that can contribute to neurodegeneration.
7. Abstain from Smoking
In addition to the negative impacts on your lungs and heart, smoking harms the brain and contributes to a higher risk of dementia and cognitive decline. Studies show that people who smoke are at a higher risk of developing all types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.
Cigarettes and cigarette smoke contain numerous chemical compounds that are toxic to the body. Research has found that these substances contribute to oxidative stress, inflammation, and atherosclerotic processes, which in turn contribute to the catalyzing processes that appear to cause Alzheimer’s disease.
Avoiding smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke can reduce your risk of dementia as well as diseases of the heart and lungs. If you are working towards quitting smoking, methods based on mindfulness and self-awareness can help make the process easier and more effective. Having a strong basis of self-knowledge, respecting your limitations, and understanding your goals are key steps towards abstaining from habits that harm your health, including smoking.
A personalized healthy lifestyle is the cornerstone of disease prevention and promoting brain health. By combining these balanced lifestyle habits, you can help create good brain health and reduce your risk of cognitive decline.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; it does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.
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