Higher exercise levels can reduce dementia risk by 30 to 40 percent compared with low activity levels, and physically active people tend to maintain better cognition and memory than inactive people.
Working out helps the hippocampus, the region of the brain involved in memory formation. As we age, our hippocampus shrinks, leading to memory loss. Exercise can reverse this process, the research suggests.
How we work up a sweat is up to us, but most experts recommend 150 minutes a week of moderate activity. Even a little bit can help: "In our research as little as 15 minutes of regular exercise three times per week helped maintain the brain," says Eric B. Larson, M.D., executive director of Group Health Research Institute in Seattle.
- Pump Iron
Older women who participated in a yearlong weight-training program at the University of British Columbia at Vancouver did 13 percent better on tests of cognitive function than a group of women who did balance and toning exercises. "Resistance training may increase the levels of growth factors in the brain such as IGF1, which nourish and protect nerve cells," says Teresa Liu-Ambrose, head of the university's Aging, Mobility, and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory.
- Seek Out New Skills
Learning spurs the growth of new brain cells. "When we challenge the brain, we increase the number of brain cells and the number of connections between those cells," says Keith L. Black, M.D., chair of neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. "But it's not enough to do the things you routinely do… You have to learn new things." Changing your route home, learning a new skill set, putting yourself in a situation that is foreign to you – all of this feeds your brain.
Chronic stress floods our brain with cortisol, which leads to impaired memory. To better understand if easing tension changes the brain, Harvard researchers studied men and women trained in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), which involves observing sensations, feelings and thoughts in a detached, neutral way. MBSR has been shown to reduce harmful stress hormones. After eight weeks, researchers took MRI scans of participants' brains that showed the density of gray matter in the hippocampus increased significantly in the MBSR group, compared with a control group.
- Eat Like Those Greeks
A heart-friendly Mediterranean diet — fish, vegetables, fruit, nuts and beans — reduced Alzheimer's risk by 34 to 48 percent in studies conducted by Columbia University.
And omega-3 fatty acids from fish are very important for maintaining heart health and now we think are probably equally important for maintaining a healthy brain.
Data from several large studies suggest that older people who eat the most fruits and vegetables, especially the leafy-green variety, may experience a slower rate of cognitive decline and a lower risk for dementia than meat lovers.
- Spice It Up
Your brain enjoys spices as much as your taste buds do. Herbs and spices such as black pepper, cinnamon, oregano, basil, parsley, ginger and vanilla are high in antioxidants, which may help build brainpower. Scientists are particularly intrigued by curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric. It bonds to amyloid plaques that accumulate in the brain, and lowers inflammation levels.
- Sing Your Song
Discovering your mission in life can help you stay sharp, according to a Rush University Medical Center study of more than 950 older adults. Participants who approached life with clear intentions and goals at the start of the study were less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease over the following seven years.
- Get Social
Who needs friends? We all do! Having multiple social networks lowered dementia risk in a 15-year study of older people from Sweden's Karolinska Institute, probably because a rich social life can protect against dementia by providing emotional and mental stimulation. And get this: subjects in a University of Michigan study did better on tests of short-term memory after just 10 minutes of conversation with another person. Wow.
- Reduce Risks
Chronic health conditions like diabetes, obesity and hypertension are often associated with dementia. Diabetes, for example, roughly doubles the risk for Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. Controlling these risk factors can slow the tide. That means following standard suggestions regarding diet and exercise and taking prescribed medications.
- Supplement Your Diet
Keep in mind that older adults don't always get all the nutrients they need from foods, because of declines in digestive acids or because their medications interfere with absorption. That vitamin deficit — particularly vitamin B12 — can also affect brain vitality. Older adults at risk of vitamin B12 deficiencies had smaller brains and scored lowest on tests measuring thinking, reasoning and memory, Rush University Medical Center researchers found.
Beth Howard writes for AARP The Magazine on health and medical issues..