Listen up boomers, Gen Xers and Zers, and you too, millenials: A spate of recent studies published over the past few months point to some new truths about dementia, a term for a group of disorders of which Alzheimer’s disease is the most common. Symptoms of dementia include a decline in memory, changes in thinking, judging and reasoning skills, decreased focus and attention and changes in communications skills. Those critical brain functions are grouped together under the term cognitive function.
For many years, the diagnosis of dementia seemed an inevitable aspect of aging and was viewed with horror — time to be shipped off to the nursing home, or in more modern parlance, the memory care unit. The latest thinking, based on an international array of impressive studies, is that we do have a certain degree of control over our cognitive health. We do not have cures for the diseases under the umbrella of dementia. No magic bullets have emerged, but individuals can make a difference in their cognitive health. Here’s what we know:
Yes, that bugaboo of practically every disease, exercise, is crucially important. Sorry to remind you, but you can’t just Netflix your life away and expect great outcomes, unless you watch Netflix while on your treadmill. And do that at least three times a week. Here’s why it's so important: Exercise makes the blood flow to the brain. Our brains like blood flow, especially through healthy blood vessels boosted by a high level of HDL cholesterol (that’s the good stuff). Blood flow also assists the brain in creating new synapses, which are connectors that keep our memory intact and increase mental alertness. So get as much aerobic exercise in as you can. In a recent study, the group that exercised for 60 minutes at 70-80% of their maximum heart rate four times a week had significant improvements in blood flow and scores on cognitive tests. And they were all over 65 years old. Think what starting at 35 might do.
Yes, when it comes to brain health, you are what you eat. And if you follow a Mediterranean diet — fish, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, olive oil — you have a leg up on better health. However, if you take it a step further and convert that diet to the MIND diet, you will be following the best known plan for keeping the brain healthy. The MIND diet adds more berries and leafy green vegetables as well as prescribing wild fish, which is high in omega-3 fatty acids, and up to one tablespoon of olive oil a day.
Your mom was right when she put you to bed at the same time each night. Good sleep hygiene posits that you keep a regular schedule of bedtime and waking up time each day for your 7.5-8 ideal hours per day of sleep. Researchers aren’t quite sure what sleep does; they just know that it's an important factor in brain health. Keep your screens out of the bedroom, and just say no to caffeine after 1:00 p.m. to complete the picture.
Engaging in mentally stimulating activities is also good for the brain by helping to grow new neurons and increasing cognitive reserve, which is what we need for problem solving. In one study, people who participated in six activities or more per month — hobbies, volunteering, reading, socializing, etc. — had a 38% lower rate of developing dementia than people who did fewer activities.
All of the above
It stands to reason that all of these factors that have shown to positively deflect the onset of dementia are enhanced when practiced together rather than focusing on just one or two. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on a two-year clinical trial in Finland where a group of 60- to 74-year-olds were divided into two groups. The one that engaged in a multipronged effort scored between 40% and 150% better than the other group who received general health advice in tests of executive function, mental speed and complex memory tasks.