Roughly 5.7 million Americans have dementia today. By 2060, some 13.9 million will be living with Alzheimer’s or related dementias.
It’s not all bad news, though. Research is increasingly revealing that there are things we can do to help lower the risk of developing dementia as we age. And a lot of those things are fun, exciting, and even adventurous.
“Mental stimulation, maintaining strong social networks, regular exercise, good quality sleep, a healthy diet, minimal alcohol consumption, and no smoking can help reduce the risk of cognitive decline with age,” says Marissa Gaucher, ND.
Keep moving (however you like)
Moderate physical activity increases the volume of gray and white matter and boosts cell growth in the brain. This counteracts the physiologically normal shrinking (which, by the way, starts happening in our thirties).
Twelve weeks into a fitness routine, you may already notice better verbal fluency and a sharper memory.
Join a group or sign up for classes at your local community center or fitness club. You’ll get a chance to socialize and a support group to boost your morale when you need it most!
Keep learning about fascinating stuff
Transitioning into the golden years often comes with extra time for sports, continued education, traveling, and social engagements. And many people reinvent themselves professionally as they hit their fifties or even later. This is fantastic news for the brain.
A 2019 study examined brain function in a group of people aged 59 to 79 and discovered that four months of learning a new language resulted in improved cognition.
Go beyond your comfort zone: Doing crossword puzzles or listening to music is not enough. Learning a new skill or pursuing new ideas or education challenges your working memory, long-term memory, and high-level cognition.
In a recent study, performing easy, familiar tasks in familiar environments or just socializing alone resulted in little or no improvement compared to intensive learning. So don’t hold back when it comes to expanding your mind. Your brain will thank you!
Keep hanging with friends
Older people who experience depression are at a higher risk of cognitive decline. “Depression is common among the elderly, but that doesn’t mean it is part of normal aging,” says Gaucher. “Prevention should start as early as possible and be maintained throughout your lifetime to reduce the risk of depression.”
Adults with a strong support network are less likely to experience depression. And surrounding yourself with friends for an emotional boost is thought to help keep your brain happy and able to perform daily tasks with ease. A recent study found, for example, that women who have large social networks maintain better cognitive function and seem to be protected against dementia.
Keep eating tasty foods
A reduced appetite is normal in older people, but the brain still needs its energy, so maintaining a healthy diet is essential. “Epidemiologic studies have shown that the ideal diet to slow cognitive decline is the Mediterranean diet,” says Gaucher. Eat mostly fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats, as well as fewer processed foods and less dairy.
Alcohol, tobacco, air pollutants, and certain foods contain molecules that can generate compounds called free radicals in your body. Too many free radicals lead to oxidative stress and cell damage, increasing the risk of neurodegenerative diseases and premature brain aging. Minimize your exposure to these free radical generators, and help counteract free radicals with antioxidant foods, including spirulina, green tea, blueberries, and spinach. Curcumin supplements can also reduce oxidative stress.
In addition, says Gaucher, “Multiple studies indicate a potential impact of micronutrient status on cognitive decline, in particular B vitamins, vitamin D, and omega-3 fatty acids.”
It’s important to note that obesity and diabetes increase the risk of cognitive impairment, depression, and dementia. Obesity has also been associated with prolonged brain inflammation, which is thought to increase the risk of neurodegenerative disease.
Eating too little is also problematic. “A main cause of malnutrition in the elderly is reduced dietary intake due to social, physiological, and psychological factors,” says Gaucher. That can contribute to weight loss and nutrient deficiency, which impacts cognitive function.
Some people may experience inefficient digestion and nutrition deficiencies as they age for reasons including lower acid levels, manifested as bloating, constipation, and/or heartburn, according to Melanie Pouliot, a certified nutritional consultant.
Pouliot recommends drinking 1/4 cup of celery juice twice a day before meals, chewing a celery stick daily to boost acid production, or eating unpasteurized sauerkraut. Stress can affect stomach acid production, she adds, so try to reduce stress using deep breathing and/or meditation to improve digestion.
Overall, the key to maintaining brainpower is simple, says Gaucher: “Use it or lose it—use your brain, move your body, and challenge yourself!” And who doesn’t love to do that?
Another reason to make naturally fermented vegetables like sauerkraut part of your diet? They’re full of probiotics, which help keep your gut bacteria happy. And healthy gut bacteria may improve cognitive function and memory!
What about kids’ brain health?
We often think about the later years when we talk about long-term brain health, but the early years matter too.
Nutrients that are important for kids’ brain development include:
- vitamin D
- folate and vitamins B6 and B12
- omega-3 fatty acids
- vitamin A
Supplementation may be helpful to fill nutrient gaps, particularly for kids who are picky eaters, on a special diet, or living with a disease or condition that impacts their ability to absorb nutrients. Choose supplements that are specially formulated for kids—you don’t want your little one getting quantities of nutrients that will push them over the recommended intakes for their age group.