Alzheimer’s is a complex disease with multiple risk factors. Some, like your age and genetics, are outside your control. However, there are seven pillars for a brain-healthy lifestyle that are within your control:
- Regular exercise
- Social engagement
- Healthy diet
- Mental stimulation
- Quality sleep
- Stress management
- Vascular health
Experts now believe that the risk of Alzheimer’s is not limited to old age, but in fact can start in the brain long before symptoms are detected, often in middle age. That means that it’s never too early to start taking care of your brain health. The more you strengthen each of the seven pillars in your daily life, the longer—and stronger—your brain will stay working and the more likely you’ll be able to reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s or another dementia.
In prior months, The Choice Voice focused on the first three pillars. This month’s article focuses on Pillars 4 & 5: Mental Stimulation and Quality Sleep.
Pillar #4: Mental stimulation
Those who continue learning new things and challenging their brains throughout life are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. In essence, you need to “use it or lose it.” In the groundbreaking NIH ACTIVE study, older adults who received as few as 10 sessions of mental training not only improved their cognitive functioning in daily activities in the months after the training, but continued to show long-lasting improvements 10 years later.
Activities involving multiple tasks or requiring communication, interaction, and organization offer the greatest protection. Set aside time each day to stimulate your brain:
Learn something new. Study a foreign language, practice a musical instrument, or learn to paint or sew. One of the best ways to take up a new hobby is to sign up for a class and then schedule regular times for practicing. The greater the novelty, complexity, and challenge, the greater the benefit.
Raise the bar for an existing activity. If you’re not keen on learning something new, you can still challenge your brain by increasing your skills and knowledge of something you already do. For example, if you can play the piano and don’t want to learn a new instrument, commit to learning a new piece of music or improving how well you play your favorite piece.
Practice memorization techniques. For example, make up a sentence in which the first letter of each word represents the initial of what you want to remember, such as using the sentence “Every good boy does fine” to memorize the notes of the treble clef, E, G, B, D, and F. Creating rhymes and patterns can strengthen your memory connections.
Enjoy strategy games, puzzles, and riddles. Brain teasers and strategy games provide a great mental workout and build your capacity to form and retain cognitive associations. Do a crossword puzzle, play board games, cards, or word and number games such as Scrabble or Sudoku.
Follow the road less traveled. Take a new route or eat with your non-dominant hand. Vary your habits regularly to create new brain pathways.
Pillar #5: Quality sleep
There are a number of links between poor sleep patterns and the development of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Some studies have emphasized the importance of quality sleep for flushing out toxins in the brain. Others have linked poor sleep to higher levels of beta-amyloid in the brain, a sticky protein that can further disrupt the deep sleep necessary for memory formation.
If nightly sleep deprivation is slowing your thinking and or affecting your mood, you may be at greater risk of developing symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. To help improve your sleep:
• Establish a regular sleep schedule. Going to bed and getting up at the same time reinforces your natural circadian rhythms. Your brain’s clock responds to regularity.
• Set the mood. Reserve your bed for sleep and sex, and ban television and computers from the bedroom (both are stimulating and may lead to difficulties falling asleep).
• Create a relaxing bedtime ritual. Take a hot bath, do some light stretches, listen to relaxing music, or dim the lights. As it becomes habit, your nightly ritual will send a powerful signal to your brain that it’s time for deep restorative sleep.
• Get screened for sleep apnea. If you’ve received complaints about your snoring, you may want to get tested for sleep apnea, a potentially dangerous condition where breathing is disrupted during sleep. Treatment can make a huge difference in both your health and sleep quality.
Source: Authors: Melinda Smith, M.A., Lawrence Robinson, and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. Last updated: February 2020.