While there is still no definitive cure for dementia or Alzheimer’s, one positive spin-off from the vast amounts of research undertaken is that scientists have now found ways to maximise your brain health and minimise the risk of disease. While there are no guarantees, there’s ample evidence to indicate that individuals can reduce the risk for dementia and other chronic neurodegenerative disorders by adopting a healthier lifestyle.
According to Alzheimer’s Australia, the following five steps are essential for brain health.
1. Look after your heart
Many of us may be surprised to know that heart health has a direct influence on brain health. The reason? The risk of developing dementia increases as a result of conditions that affect the heart or blood vessels, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity and type 2 diabetes. These conditions are all easily identifiable and easily treatable – and for the sake of both our general health and our brains, prevention and early treatment are key.
Individuals with diabetes, high cholesterol or high blood pressure who are not effectively treating their condition may damage the blood vessels in the brain, which may in turn affect brain function and the ability to think.
“Your brain is your most valuable asset. You need to protect it all your life.”
2. Be physically active
Exercise gives your brain a boost! It increases blood flow and oxygen, stimulates brain cells and is linked to greater brain volume. Exercise also reduces the risk of life-threatening diseases, such as high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol, which, once again, all increase the potential for dementia and cognitive decline.
So, how much exercise is enough? When it comes to brain health, even moderate exercise such as walking has been shown to be very good for your brain. If you currently do no exercise, start doing a small amount of exercise, and slowly build up. Some form of physical activity every day of the week is highly recommended.
Ideally, you should aim to build up to 2 ½ to 5 hours of moderate intensity physical activity per week (or the equivalent amount of low or high intensity exercise). Muscle strengthening activities are also recommended.
3. Mentally challenge your brain
Good news for those who have chosen to work through their retirement: challenging the brain builds new brain cells – and strengthens the connections between them. This gives your brain more reserve, a bit like computer backup, so that it can work better if brain cells are damaged or die.
“Higher levels of mental activity throughout life are consistently associated with better brain function and reduced risk of cognitive decline and dementia.”
Although learning something new can be a tiresome thought for some, brain stimulation is essential for our brain health, so it is wise to push yourself through this barrier. Try to learn something, in fact, anything new. It could be a language, doing crosswords, a new course in something that interests you – anything that gets you out of your comfort zone and has your grey matter churning over. The verdict is out: increased complex mental activity in our twilight years is proven to be associated with a lower dementia risk.
4. Eat a healthy diet
A balanced, healthy diet may help in maintaining brain health and function. Several studies have indicated that a high intake of saturated fats is associated with the increased risk of dementia. Try to include a higher intake of ‘good fats’ such as fish and olive oil. Omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in oily fish and walnuts may reduce inflammation in the brain, helping promote new brain cell growth. Antioxidant-rich foods have also been identified as beneficial for brain health.
5. Stay social
Social activities are mentally stimulating, which is likely to contribute to building brain reserve, and decreasing the risk of dementia. It may also have benefits for cognitive functioning. Currently research suggests that social activities that include a mixture of physical and mental activity, such as dancing or team sports activities may provide even greater brain health benefit, once again reducing the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
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