Beyond looking for a pharmaceutical cure, these lifestyle changes can help improve your odds of maintaining brain health.
In the first installment of the series on dementia-proofing your retirement, we looked at the financial planning aspects of the disease. The second part addressed some legal issues that those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s must deal with. In Part III of the series, we covered some of the best practices for creating a safer home for Alzheimer’s patients.
Throughout the series, we’ve been sharing tips to consider if you or your loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In this article, we will address a few ideas for lifestyle changes that are showing promise in improving your odds for long-term neurological health. While these are not a cure for Alzheimer’s, they can help you live a longer, healthier, and more independent life.
Point 1: Fix your sleep!
We all know that sleep is important, but recent studies are demonstrating the it may be a critical component of your healthy-brain lifestyle. Consider research from National Institutes of Health (NIH) that found missing even one night’s sleep increases the levels of a specific protein (beta-amyloid) in the brain that’s associated with Alzheimer’s. This protein is a metabolic waste product. If it’s allowed to accumulate in the brain, the end result can be toxic to the nerve cells.
Therefore, making sure that you get enough sleep (including the non-REM dreamless kind that allows your brain to clear out the waste and debris created while you are awake) is critical for long-term brain health.
Exactly how much sleep is “enough”? The answer depends on your situation. Doctors say that sleeping between seven and nine hours a night is necessary for a typical adult. However, the length of sleep is only one part of the equation. You must also make sure that your sleep is productive. Accomplishing that takes more than spending seven hours in bed! Here are some ideas for improving the quality of your sleep (as well as your energy levels, enjoyment of life, and brain health). You will find more on this topic in the recently published book “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker.
- Avoid caffeine altogether or cut down on the caffeine you take in beyond the morning hours. Most people don’t realize that caffeine has a half-life of five to six hours! If you drink a cup of coffee during the post-lunch slump at 2PM, half of that caffeine is still in your body at 8PM, and a quarter of it is still coursing through your veins at 2AM the next day.
- Avoid or decrease the amount of alcohol you drink. Sure, research says that a glass of wine here and there is good for your health, but alcohol is a sedative. Therefore, that relaxed state of “sleep” you get after a few glasses of wine isn’t beneficial deep sleep – but rather sedation for your brain that doesn’t allow it to clear out the toxic proteins.
- Consider lowering your body temperature before you go to bed to induce deep sleep and help you stay asleep. This may involve taking a cool shower or bath, using a lighter blanket on the bed, or lowering your thermostat.
- Minimize the use of screens before bed. Out brain needs darkness to produce melatonin, the hormone that tells your body that it’s time to sleep. Computer, phone, and electronic tablet screens emit blue light that tricks your brain into thinking it’s still daytime (and putting a stop on melatonin production).
- If you think that a biofeedback mechanism would be helpful in optimizing and monitoring the quality of your sleep, try using sleep tracking apps or a smart wearable device such as an Oura ring.
Point 2: Fix your diet!
A diet that’s high in naturally occurring plant foods (although not necessarily strictly vegetarian) can help extend the health of your brain. This means eating lots of leafy green vegetables, small amounts of red meat, some fish, nuts and legumes. It also means cutting down on butter or margarine, sweets, and processed foods. Research shows that following a specific diet need not be “perfect” to be effective – reasonable compliance will still deliver a benefit. If you are curious about how your eating habits stack up against the recommended approach for prolonging brain health, take a look at this article from The Mayo Clinic.
If you are curious about the steps you can take to shift your food choices in the brain-healthy direction, consider reading more about the Mediterranean Diet (sometimes referred to as MIND).
Point 3: Include physical activity.
People who engage in regular physical activity can have a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s. While exercise is not a cure-all, it does have proven benefits in maintaining the health of the neural connections in your brain. Aim for exercising 30-60 minutes each day. It doesn’t have to be strenuous: if time at the gym isn’t your thing, try walking, bicycling, or yoga. The trick is to find a set of activities that you enjoy enough to keep doing something physical every day.
Point 4: Don’t neglect the need for mental stimulation.
A recent study from Harvard takes a position that learning new things might help you avoid the cognitive decline that’s associated with Alzheimer’s. While more research is needed, work done at the National Institutes of Health shows that “use it or lose it” can apply to the brain’s neural networks, especially as we age. So, if your work is mentally stimulating and challenging you to grow, learn new things, and solve new puzzles, you may have a great case for continuing to do it! If you are retired, study a foreign language, take up a musical instrument, or simply drive to a familiar place via an unfamiliar route. Play around with memorization games and puzzles. All of this exposure to new sights and ideas will stimulate your brain and help keep it young.
Point 5: Foster good relationships and a sense of community
Humans are social beings, and our well-being can decline in isolation. Therefore, those who want to live a long and healthy life should build a strong personal network like their brain health depends on it (because it does). Consider setting aside regular time to meet with friends (perhaps for a shared activity or a meal). Volunteer, take group classes, and go out to public places even if you are a naturally introverted person. It will be good for your mood and for your brain!
In closing, remember that all of these healthy-living tips are meant to improve the quality of your life – today, and hopefully as you age. Choose something to try, take small steps, and enjoy the energy and new connections that come out as a result!
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