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Keeping Your Brain Young at Any Age

As research on dementia advances—and 95% of what we know about Alzheimer’s has been discovered in the last fifteen years—two overarching themes are coming into focus. First, our best weapon against dementia is prevention; and second, brain health is inextricably integrated with the health of the whole body.

A third of all dementia is preventable, and what is emerging more clearly every day is that dementia prevention focuses on the health of the whole person. Recent research has begun to uncover some surprising connections between healthy life habits and dementia prevention, with a new understanding of the mechanisms that make these four habits so valuable for protecting your brain health.

  1. Good sleep: We know that sleep is important for all bodily functions and organs, but recently, we have learned that sleep has a special purpose for the brain—especially with regard to memory. When you sleep, your brain rids itself of toxins. It does this by contracting to squeeze out debris and then flooding itself with fresh cerebrospinal fluid to both rinse the brain and replenish it with nutrients.

The immediate effects of a bad—or too short—night’s sleep are obvious. We feel groggy and unprepared for the day, and we have trouble concentrating. But the long-term effects of chronic sleep deprivation need more attention: bad sleep undermines your brain’s natural capacity to keep itself young.

There are two main ways you can create good sleep for your brain. First, rule out the possibility of sleep apnea (or treat it). Sleep apnea, often caused by blocked airways when you relax into sleep, causes you to wake up many times during the night without realizing it. Even if you’re spending enough hours in bed, untreated sleep apnea deprives your brain of the deep-sleep cleansing process. If your partner hears you pause in your breathing or gasp for breath while you’re sleeping, if you snore, or if you find yourself dozing off unintentionally in the daytime, talk to your doctor: sleep apnea is very treatable, and healthy sleep will improve your daily life now and protect your brain for the future.

If you don’t have sleep apnea, focus on sleep hygiene: this means developing habits that foster refreshing sleep. Keep to a strict bedtime (and wake-up time). Stay away from screens in the evening, especially before bed. Limit caffeine, especially later in the day. And find out what environmental conditions (light, temperature, etc.) promote healthy sleep for you. Most of all, if you have anxiety-induced insomnia, now is the time to learn techniques for managing your anxiety.

A third of all dementia is preventable, and what is emerging more clearly every day is that dementia prevention focuses on the health of the whole person

  1. Regular physicals: As we come to a better understanding of how brain health is linked to the health of the whole body, seeing your doctor regularly for check-ups becomes more and more important. Diabetes, heart disease, and gingivitis have all been linked to cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s. In addition to their specific complications, these diseases cause inflammation, which inhibits the natural functions of the whole body and brain. By treating individual diseases, you also keep your brain young and healthy.
  2. Eat real food: Is there any system or function of the body that is not improved with a good diet? Fad diets that focus just on weight loss or that over-emphasize one nutrient should be avoided, especially if they’re so restrictive that they’re unsustainable. In addition, since dementia prevention is so integrated into the total health of the body, eating habits should support overall health, and not just brain health. The recommendation that is emerging from the research is summed up by the MIND diet. MIND stands for the “Mediterranean-DASH intervention for neurodegenerative delay,” and its recommendations won’t come as a surprise to you because they’re so consistent with common-sense nutrition: lots of vegetables, especially green leafy ones; berries and nuts, which are antioxidants; olive oil; whole grains; fish, beans, and poultry for protein; a glass of wine a day, which contains resveratrol; and limiting of unhealthy fats in foods such as margarine and butter, cheese, red meat, fried foods, and processed sweets.

The goal is sustainability, so think more in terms of shifting your eating habits than of a temporary diet. The MIND diet reduces oxidative stress and inflammation that are harmful to the brain.

  1. Have fun, mind and body: This fourth brain-healthy habit integrates not only your body systems but your whole personality. It’s been known for some time that keeping mentally active is helpful for preventing dementia. Newer research shows that what’s important is not just thinking, but learning new things. This actually creates new neural connections in your brain so that you have a “cognitive reserve”—a back-up system of alternative cognitive pathways to compensate for blockages. A habit of learning new things is not just good for the brain. It’s good for your whole personality, because it brings curiosity and excitement into life. If you can combine the habit of mental exploration with fun exercise, even better. Physical activity improves memory, delays Alzheimer’s for people at risk, and increases chemicals that protect the brain. As an added bonus, exercise will help you to get that all-important good night’s sleep.

Preventing dementia through these four healthy life-habits will not only protect your brain—it will enhance your general health, mind and body. Establishing these habits now promotes health in the present and prevents mental decline in the future.