Many women fear losing their mental faculties as they age, and consider the future to be the luck of the draw. In fact, 44% of 1,200 adults surveyed by the Marist Institute for Public Opinion were more scared of getting Alzheimer’s disease than cancer, stroke, heart disease or diabetes. What you may not realize is just how much you can protect yourself.
“We all have the power to influence how our brains age,” says Ron Petersen, MD, PhD, director of Mayo Clinic’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center in Rochester, MN. “What you do at midlife will have late-life benefits on the health of your brain and heart.” Know the facts, then take simple steps to get on track.
FACT: If someone in your family had Alzheimer’s, there’s no guarantee you’ll get it.
“Genes play a role, but the vast majority of Alzheimer’s disease is not genetically determined,” says Dr. Petersen. Researchers at Mayo Clinic have examined the education, cognitive activity levels and brain biomarkers of Alzheimer’s in people with a gene linked to the disease. Those who had completed at least two years of college and who also stayed mentally active at midlife had lower levels of a protein that can build up in brain tissue and form plaque that can lead to Alzheimer’s in higher-risk folks.
Yes, that’s right: Even though these people carried genes associated with Alzheimer’s, their intellectual activity and engagement protected them from the brain changes that are characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s proof positive that you have the power to protect yourself.
FACT: Being overweight could impair brain function.
It’s no secret that carrying around too many extra pounds is a risk for heart disease. It turns out the same is true for age-related cognitive decline. New research from the University of Arizona found that having a higher body mass index (BMI) can negatively affect memory and executive functioning (the ability to plan, focus and juggle multiple mental challenges) in older adults. The link appears to be due to inflammation; invisible to the eye, it can have trickle-up effects on the brain.
FACT: Heart health really affects brain health.
Many factors that are known to increase the risk of heart disease—high blood pressure, diabetes, problematic cholesterol levels and smoking—also boost your chances of developing cognitive impairment.
These issues restrict blood flow and promote inflammation. But getting them under control can protect your body along with your brain, says George Grossberg, MD, director of geriatric psychiatry at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine. According to a 2016 report from the Framingham Heart Study, improvements in cardiovascular health coincide with a lower incidence of dementia.
Another health issue that can affect the brain: type 2 diabetes, says Gary Small, MD, director of the UCLA Longevity Center and coauthor of 2 Weeks to a Younger Brain: “The cells in the brain don’t get nourished properly when there’s poor circulation due to diabetes.”
STEP 1: Eat like you live in Italy or Greece.
Many brain-boosting (and heart-boosting) foods are staples of the Mediterranean diet, including fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, whole grains, fresh fish and olive oil, as well as red wine.
And there’s significant proof these foods can keep you sharp: Sticking with a Mediterranean diet is associated with lower rates of cognitive decline, found a review of 18 studies published in Frontiers in Nutrition. So do your best to eat well, and remember, any shift in a positive direction is better than doing nothing at all.
STEP 2: Work out regularly.
“Exercise improves your ability to focus and stimulates brain cell growth and, in turn, long-term memory,” says Wendy Suzuki, PhD, a professor of neural science and psychology at New York University and author of Healthy Brain, Happy Life. The more you work out over the years, the more “savings” you put into your brain bank. And it’s never too late to start.
Regular aerobic exercise—think 150 minutes per week—also reduces brain atrophy. “Even brisk walking, where you can have a conversation but you’re working up a sweat, is protective,” Dr. Petersen says. One study from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver found that strength-training once or twice a week improved memory in older women.
STEP 3: Cross-train your brain.
It’s another example of the “use it or lose it” principle. Routinely challenging your mind with new or varied tasks can strengthen the connections between neurons (brain cells) and enhance cognitive skills. The greater the variety of activities, the better, says Monica W. Parker, MD, a director at the Emory Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center in Atlanta.
So play card games, do crossword puzzles and go to trivia nights. Try your hand at chess, the piano or tango. Attend lectures, concerts and other engaging cultural events. “The idea is, train but don’t strain your brain,” says Dr. Small. “It’s important to choose activities you enjoy; if it’s too stressful and difficult, cortisol will be released.” That stress hormone can negatively affect memory.
STEP 4: Spend time with the right people.
Hanging out with friends and family isn’t just fun—it’s mentally fortifying. “Socially engaging with people offers intellectual stimulation because you’re remembering who they are and using different parts of your brain to interact with others,” Dr. Parker explains. That said, you ideally want to socialize with upbeat, supportive types.
In one telling study from Rush University, researchers examined the quality of social interactions and cognitive functions of 529 adults ages 50-plus over the course of nearly five years. Those with a greater frequency of negative interactions—such as experiencing insensitive or unsympathetic behavior—had a 53% higher risk of developing mild cognitive impairment as well as more rapid mental decline.
Since you can’t always avoid toxic or negative people in your family or at work, try to limit your time with them and use good coping mechanisms (such as deep breathing) when you’re in contact.
STEP 5: Take a meditation break.
This relaxation technique delivers. In a 2016 study, researchers at UCLA compared anatomical markers of aging in the brain between 50 long-term meditators and 50 non-meditators. At age 50, the meditators’ brains were found to be a whopping 7½ years younger on average than their peers’.
Give it a go: Commit to meditating as few as 1 or 2 minutes per day, and stick with it for a month, suggests Richard J. Davidson, PhD, founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. As he says, “Even short—but consistent—periods of meditation may improve cognitive function and slow age-related decline.”
STEP 6: Sleep at least 7 hours.
Women who typically get 5 or fewer hours of shut-eye a night at midlife have worse cognitive functioning as they grow older, compared with those who regularly clock 7, revealed a study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
Meanwhile, University of Kentucky research has found that sleep apnea is associated with an increased risk of developing dementia, because the brain isn’t getting enough oxygen. Make it a priority to grab enough good-quality shut-eye and to have sleep apnea treated if you have it. Kick your electronic devices out of the bed, Dr. Parker advises, “and establish and maintain a calming bedtime routine that promotes rest.”
STEP 7: Stock up on superfoods.
Whether they fight inflammation, lower blood pressure or blood sugar, these eats are considered by experts to be powerful boosters.
Healthy fats: Nuts, seeds, avocado, olive oil
Fatty fish: Wild salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies
Beans and legumes: Lentils, black beans, garbanzo beans
Fresh fruit: Berries, cherries, tomatoes
Whole grains: Quinoa, oats, barley, black or brown rice
Green vegetables: Broccoli, spinach, kale, cabbage, Brussels sprouts