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.
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.
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.
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.