September is World Alzheimer’s Month, the zenith of which is the 21st, the day when organizations from around the world work together to raise awareness about dementia, especially the most common form—Alzheimer’s—which deeply impairs mental functioning. The sixth leading cause of death, Alzheimer’s currently afflicts 5.8 million Americans, and it’s estimated that someone develops this disease every 65 to 66 seconds.
Meanwhile, dementia, which comes in over 100 forms, affects over 46 million people worldwide, and it’s expected to expand its nasty reach to over 131 million people by 2050. Dementia knows no social, economic, or ethnic boundaries, and sadly, there is no current cure.
That’s the frightening news. While the prognosis has been historically grim, the latest science suggests that an ounce of prevention may be worth a pound of cure. That is, emerging research is showing that, fortunately, some simple lifestyle habits can greatly decrease the risk of developing dementia. See 6 easy tips on how to keep your brain sharp after 60, 70, 80, and beyond.
What is Alzheimer’s
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, with 50 to 60% of folks with dementia having Alzheimer’s. The global prevalence of Alzheimer’s is estimated to be as high as 24 million, and it is predicted to double every 20 years until at least 2040. Most folks with Alzheimer’s are over 65, and along those lines, age (along with certain genetic predispositions, such as variations of the apoE4 gene) is the biggest risk factor for developing the disease. 1
While the symptoms can vary, the first signs of Alzheimer’s are memory issues along with impaired thinking, such as not being able to find the right words, impaired judgement, and visual issues. It’s a progressive, irreversible disease that gradually destroys memory and thinking skills until even the ability to carry out simple tasks—like driving, cooking, or paying bills—is no longer possible. Plus, it also causes erratic, unpredictable behavior and language problems.
Within the brain, Alzheimer’s causes abnormal clumps (i.e., accumulation of amyloidβ), tangled neural fibers (i.e., hyperphosphorylated tau tangles), and the loss of connections between nerve cells within the brain, starting in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain essential for learning as well as forming memories. As the disease progresses, more neurons begin to die, and the brain literally begins to shrink, along with other complex brain changes that appear to play a role in the disease.
How to Keep Your Brain Sharp After 60: 6 Easy Tips
While research has shown increased risk of Alzheimer’s due to genetics (i.e., apoE4 carriers are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s, with 40 – 60% of folks with Alzheimer’s carrying the apoE4 gene) as well as aging, which are beyond our control, lifestyle factors can do a lot to boost the health of the mind and keep the brain sharp.
There are six key lifestyle factors that may strongly decrease the risk of developing this horrible disease (by up to 50%):
1. Exercise regularly
Taking your fitness seriously and making exercise a daily habit can help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by up to 50% according to the Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation. 2 Regular exercise may even slow the progression of dementia for those who are already struggling with cognitive decline.
The general recommendation is to exercise at a moderate intensity for at least 150 minutes per week, incorporating both cardio (like walking, jogging, dancing, etc.) and strength training (at least 2 to 3 times per week) into your routine. Add in some balance, coordination, and agility training (such as yoga or Tai Chi) into your routine as well to help prevent falls and say agile.
2. Eat to support brain health
It should come as no surprise that certain foods (salmon, blueberries, and leafy greens come to the top of mind, no pun intended) can help boost your brain. Alzheimer’s has been called “diabetes of the brain” as there appears to be a link between metabolic disorders, inflammation, and insulin resistance and how well brain cells communicate. Along those lines, just like improving the way you eat can dramatically reduce the risk for type 2 diabetes, a mindful, wholesome approach to eating can really help protect your brain.
Decrease consumption of sugary foods and refined carbs, eat plenty of vegetables and fruits, avoid trans fats, eat omega-3 fats, and enjoy more home-cooked whole-food meals to keep your brain sharp. One diet that research has shown to help reduce the risk of cognitive impairment is the Mediterranean Diet. 3 Or, you could try the MIND Diet, which marries the best of the DASH Diet with that of the Mediterranean Diet. It encourages the consumption of vegetables (especially green leafy ones), berries, nuts, beans, whole grains, fish, and poultry and limits fast foods, fried foods, red meats, cheeses, and sweets.
3. Stimulate your mind
If you want to keep your brain sharp, keep it challenged. Those who are life-long learners are less likely to develop cognitive impairment, especially if the mental activities include communication, interaction, and organization. 4, 5
Commit to your personal growth. Take time daily to learn something new like a foreign language, musical instrument, or artistic endeavor. Or, read a good book or your favorite magazine. Take a class (a cooking class, for example, and learn to check box #2 above at the same time). You could even take a new route to a familiar destination or try a new food or recipe.
Work on increasing the skills or know-how you already have by continuing to challenge your mind. Play with your memorization—join your kids or grandkids in re-memorizing the 50 U.S. state capitals, for example. Or, memorize the names of all the trees on your street or street names on your way to work. Enjoy brain teasers like puzzles, riddles, crossword puzzles, or Sudoku.
When it comes to tips for how to keep your brain sharp, these new habits and skills will help create new brain pathways.
4. Get social
Make a strong network of friends and family a priority to keep your brain sharp. We’re social creatures, and staying engaged socially is vital to our health and minds. Even if you consider yourself a “loner” or an introvert, trusted relationships are vital.
Studies analyzing the correlation between loneliness and risk of developing Alzheimer’s revealed that lonely people had a higher risk of Alzheimer’s compared with persons who were socially integrated. Meanwhile, it has been reported that cognitive decline can be prevented and the onset of Alzheimer’s can be delayed with frequent participation in social activities.
To prevent feeling lonely, take the time to meet with friends or family regularly; pick up the phone and call a loved one; get out and enjoy movies, museums, and parks; join a club or community center; take a class—maybe even an exercise class; volunteer at a local food or pet shelter, library, or for trail maintenance; or get to know your neighbors. 6, 7
5. Get your (brain) beauty sleep
Are you getting between seven and nine hours of sleep at night? If not, it’s time to start. Sleep deprivation doesn’t just slow your thinking and affect your mood the following day, it could be increasing your risk of developing dementia as lack of sleep has been linked to increased levels of amyloidβ and neurotoxic waste, which is cleared from the brain during sleep. 8
Focus on your sleep hygiene with a regular sleep schedule, a no-screens-in-the-bedroom rule, and a relaxing bedtime ritual to get you in the “mood” for sleep, for example.
6. Manage your stress
Do you find it difficult to quiet the mind as you are burning the candle at both ends? This could be taking a serious toll on your brain, leading to reduced memory formation and nerve cell growth. Elevated levels of stress hormones—such as cortisol—can be leading you down the road toward dementia. 9
There are numerous ways to help manage your stress, helping take care of your brain and body, such as:
- Practice mindfulness
- Walk in nature
- Listen to music
- Play with and pet your puppy (or any pet)
- Take a relaxing bath
- Sit in a sauna
- Pray or reflect
Choose something that helps you relax and let go of the tensions that seem to build up so easily in our fast-paced lives.
The Link Between Fitness and Cognition
Research shows that even younger adults who are more fit have better brain structure, which could lead to improved cognition, memory, and problem solving. 10 And this could have a significant impact as we age.
Other actions you can take to keep your brain sharp include maintaining a healthy blood pressure (around 120/80 mmHg or lower), 11, 12 not smoking, limiting alcohol intake, avoiding being overweight, standing up straight, and using all of your senses.
You’re never too young—or too old—to start caring about how to keep your brain sharp for decades into the future. And if you prioritize your mental health as well as your physical health, you’ll be well on your way to significantly decreasing your odds of developing Alzheimer’s.