Alzheimer Disease – Protect Your Brain Health, Decade by Decade

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Misplace your glasses or occasionally forget a friend’s name? These common memory lapses are normal – not signs of Alzheimer disease, a form of dementia that robs you of cognitive skills and independence. We now know Alzheimer starts decades before behavioral symptoms appear and that there are ways to protect brain health no matter what your age…

We think of Alzheimer disease as an older person’s illness, but experts say critical proteins begin to break down as early as middle age.

“Long before you really start to notice you’re more forgetful or having trouble learning new things, your brain is experiencing changes that lead to the plaques and tangles that typically occur in Alzheimer,” says Daniel G. Amen, M.D., a psychiatrist and author of Change Your Brain, Change Your Body  (Harmony).

Plaques are clumpy deposits of proteins that develop between brain cells in Alzheimer patients. They can block the brain from sending important messages. When nerve fibers that nourish the brain become twisted, they’re called tangles, another symptom of Alzheimer disease. Because you’re not likely to get diagnosed early, when this damage is just starting, adopt a healthy brain lifestyle now to stop symptoms before they start. Some surprising strategies can ward off Alzheimer disease, such as losing weight, breaking up your workload – even brushing your teeth. Read on for brain health tips for nearly every phase of life.

1. In Your 30’s

You’re busy starting a family, launching a career and establishing a home. If you’re like most women, you’re probably feeling frazzled. Still, habits you set now will boost brain health for decades to come.

Brain Health Tip #1: Get Your Heart Pumping

Exercise actually builds a healthier brain. Aerobic exercise triggers the secretion of brain growth factor (BGF), a neuronal growth hormone, says Pierce J. Howard, Ph.D., author of The Owner’s Manual for the Brain (William Morrow) and director of research for the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies, in Charlotte, N.C.

Exercise is “like fertilizer for the brain,” he says. That’s because it creates new connections “for learning and strengthening what you already know,” he adds. Aim to do slightly strenuous exercise, such as brisk walking or bicycling, 30 minutes a day, five days a week. “If you’re not a little winded at the end, [your activity] hasn’t been brisk enough,” Howard says.

Brain Health Tip #2: Cut Back on Saturated Fats

Saturated fats are found in animal foods such as meat, butter and cheese. These fats are the artery-clogging culprits behind cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. They starve blood flow to your brain. “Brain function is improved by having good circulation,” says William Thies, Ph.D., chief medical and scientific officer for the Alzheimer’s Association.

Brain Health Tip #3: Steer Clear of Cigarettes

If you smoke, make a serious effort to quit. Smoking nearly doubles the risk for Alzheimer’s disease.  That’s because nicotine disrupts oxygen flow to the brain. This can lead to memory loss and problem-solving difficulties, Howard says. Smoking also raises cortisol levels. This stress hormone can shrink areas of the brain involved in memory.

Brain Health Tip #4: Organize Your Priorities

Many women try to do too much and end up stressed and exhausted, says Gary Small, M.D., director of the UCLA Center on Aging and author of The Memory Prescription (Hachette Books). Taking on too many responsibilities affects the brain’s ability to focus and remember, he says. So start by assessing your priorities, learn to say “no” to demands on your time and ask for help.

Brain Health Tip #5: Brush and Floss

Surprise: Your dentist’s advice may actually protect your brain. Studies show that adults with gum disease are more likely to do poorly on cognitive tests involving memory and calculations as they age. So brush your teeth at least twice a day and floss every day, says the American Dental Association.

2. In Your 40’s

They call this “the sandwich generation.” At this life stage, you may be working a full-time job, raising children and caring for aging parents.  At the same time, hormones are shifting as you enter perimenopause, the period before menopause. All these changes cause tremendous stress and rob you of time to eat well and exercise regularly.

Brain Health Tip #6: Eat Fish

Certain fish, such as salmon, tuna and mackerel, contain omega-3 fatty acids. “The brain’s cell membranes need omega-3s, especially DHA [docosahexaenoic acid] to function properly,” Dr. Amen explains. Don’t like seafood? Take fish oil capsules instead — 1,000 milligrams (mg) daily. Make sure the supplement has both DHA and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), the most beneficial of the fatty acids.

Brain Health Tip #7: Stop Multitasking

Do you feel more efficient when you’re trying to do more than one thing at a time? Well, you’re not. Experts say it’s actually less effective, and also time-consuming, to constantly switch from one task to another. Not to mention, multitasking takes a negative toll on your brain. It causes stress and possibly long-term memory loss, Dr. Small says. Interruptions are particularly damaging to memory in older adults, a 2010 study at the University of California, San Francisco suggests.

So it’s not a good idea to switch between answering emails and reading a report while checking Facebook. “The key to ending multitasking is to know you’re doing it,” Dr. Small says. “When you catch yourself doing it, eliminate at least one task. Focus on just one thing.”

Brain Health Tip #8: Get a Good Night’s Sleep

Researchers have long known that sleep is essential for memory. And a 2011 study at Stanford University found that uninterrupted sleep is what really counts the most. Uninterrupted sleep is important for recharging the brain and forming memories, Howard says. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Sleep can be hard to come by when hormones are shifting and you’re juggling multiple responsibilities.

To boost your odds for sound sleep, Howard recommends these tips:

  • Limit your caffeine intake, especially in the six hours before bedtime.
  • If you frequently wake up to go to the bathroom, try restricting your fluids after dinner.
  • If necessary, try taking melatonin; this naturally occurring hormone causes sleepiness, and it’s available over-the-counter.

Brain Health Tip #9: Watch Your Weight

Overweight middle-aged adults are far more vulnerable to dementia. In one study, they were 80% more likely to develop dementia than people with a normal body mass index (BMI). The brain’s prefrontal cortex controls decision-making and social behavior. As your weight goes up, the function of this region of the brain goes down. “Fat produces inflammatory chemicals that damage the brain,” Dr. Amen explains.

Brain Health Tip #10: Try Meditation

Daily meditation reduces stress as well as amounts of the brain-sabotaging hormone cortisol, Dr. Small says. Meditation also induces feelings of relaxation and greater mental clarity. Whether you focus on your breath, a mantra or prayer, the key is to do it consistently. “Any healthy brain strategy works best when practiced over time,” Dr. Small says.

3. In Your 50s and Beyond

With kids out of the house, you may be breathing easier. Now you have time to focus on yourself, including your health.

Brain Health Tip #11: Learn Something New

New knowledge and skills can protect you from dementia by creating connections in the brain. “You may have tangles in the brain, but when you form connections, they bypass those,” Howard says. When you’re acquiring new knowledge, don’t go too easy on yourself. What you learn should be significantly different from what you already know. For example, if you know French and decide to learn Italian, it’s not going to be as effective on your brain health as learning Chinese. At the same time, keep doing things you enjoy, Howard advises.

Brain Health Tip #12: Eat 4 to 6 Servings of Fruits and Vegetables a Day

Simply put, produce contains antioxidants. These compounds protect against brain aging and memory loss, says Michael Wald, M.D., C.C.N., director of nutritional services at Integrated Medicine & Nutrition, in Mount Kisco, N.Y. It’s especially important to include berries in your diet, Dr. Wald says. Berries have antioxidants called anthocyanins that shield the brain from cell-damaging free radicals.

Brain Health Tip #13: Get Support

One key to a healthy brain is having a supportive network of people, whether relatives, co-workers or new acquaintances. “The more quality relationships an individual maintains and nurtures, the better chance of staving off dementia,” Howard says. “Friendships reduce stress, which lowers cortisol.”

Brain Health Tip #14: Eat Healthful Proteins

All proteins contain tyrosine and tryptophan. These amino acids help the brain produce chemicals called neurotransmitters that are essential for proper brain function, Dr. Wald says. Good sources of protein include raw nuts, pumpkin seeds, egg whites, yogurt, beans, fish and lean meat and poultry. Don’t forget to limit protein sources that are high in saturated fat.

Brain Health Tip #15: Take Up Ping-Pong or Ballroom Dancing

Incorporate activities into your lifestyle that challenge the mind and the body simultaneously. Ping-pong and ballroom dancing are good examples. They both require skills such as anticipating the next move and good coordination. They “activate the cerebellum, in the bottom of the brain, which helps with thinking, organization and impulse control,” Dr. Amen explains.

Brain Health Tip #16: Get Into Nature

Too much time in sealed homes and offices saps your brain of fresh oxygen, which is essential to clear thinking, Howard says. So get outside for frequent breaks or at least open a window. Just spending time in nature and sunshine can also boost brain health by improving mood and creating calm. Sunshine provides vitamin D, too; people with low levels of the vitamin have a greater risk for cognitive decline.

(This article appeared on Lifescript)

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