Where should your quest for an ageless and healthy brain begin? With the fundamentals, of course. Research links the “commandments” outlined below to a reduced risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and a slew of other conditions.
Commandment #1: Quench Chronic Inflammation
When illness or infection strikes, the body’s immune system snaps into action. One of its basic tools is a process called inflammation, and it comes in two different forms. When you stub your toe, the redness, pain and swelling of acute inflammation mean your body’s inflammatory response is working properly. Acute inflammation lasts a few days, then goes away. But when this healing response doesn’t shut off and becomes chronic, it starts to threaten your health
— and potentially your brain.
Chronic inflammation is the body’s misguided immune response to everyday threats — a diet packed with unhealthy added sugars and bad fats, too little sleep, and too much stress, and too much body or belly fat. This low-grade “smolder” in the body plays a key role in a wide variety of chronic diseases, such as obesity, heart and blood vessel disease (also called cardiovascular disease), type 2 diabetes — and Alzheimer’s disease (AD).
Cool chronic inflammation with a healthy, whole-foods diet and these other science-tested inflammation fighters:
1. Sleep tight every night. Avoid technology in bed, late-night noshes, late-afternoon naps, caffeine (within 4- 6 hours of heading to bed) and nightcaps just before bed.
2. Take a daily walk break. While chronic inflammation typically increases with age, regular exercise, even walking, can help reduce it.
3. Just say om. When you do mindfulness meditation, you tune in to your thoughts, feelings, and body sensations which eases stress and anxiety.
4. Baby your brain. The daily low-dose aspirin found to help keep heart disease at bay may also protect your brain.
5. Kick the cigarettes. Smoking is a prime cause of chronic inflammation. Here are tips to help you stop smoking now.
Commandment #2: Lose the Weight and Whittle Your Waist
Nearly 70 percent of Americans have too much body fat, national health studies show. This statistic is based on a measure of weight classification called body mass index (BMI). A BMI at or above 25 is considered overweight; a BMI at or above 30, obese.
BMI is also a good gauge of risk for a slew of diseases linked to excess body fat, such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and breathing problems. As BMI rises, so does risk.
However, BMI doesn’t account for one crucial factor: excess belly fat. When you carry extra fat around your middle, not only do the odds of the diseases just listed go up, you may also put your thinking and memory in harm’s way. Consider these two belly-fat busters to help get you to a healthy BMI:
1. Say so long to soda. Sip water instead, and you’re likely to see your stomach flatten. In a study published in the Journal of Nutrition, soda-sippers had 10 percent more abdominal fat than those who didn’t.
2. Dust off your pedometer. Or invest in one. Then aim to take 10,000 steps a day. People who were moderately active lowered their rate of abdominal fat accumulation by 7 percent, compared with those who moved less, a study published in Obesity found.
Commandment #3: Keep Blood Pressure in Check
If you have high blood pressure, as one in three adults in the United States do, you likely already know that you’re at higher risk for stroke and heart attack. But did you know that runaway blood pressure may threaten your thinking and memory?
Preserve the health of your heart and your brain by incorporating the following steps into your lifestyle:
1. Get on the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). The foundation of any healthy-pressure plan starts with whole foods like veggies and fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy foods, and fish, and skimps on red meat, harmful fats, sweets, and sugary drinks. Studies show that just 2 weeks on the DASH diet plan can reduce blood pressure.
2. Get a move on. Cardiovascular exercise helps to reduce blood pressure by making arteries more pliable so that blood can flow through them more freely. It also gets your heart pumping, which boosts the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your brain.
3. Medication. If these lifestyle changes don’t reduce your blood pressure, medication may be the next step. Fortunately, evidence shows that treatment with antihypertensive medications may help stave off dementia.
Commandment #4: Safeguard Your Cardiovascular Health
“Waxy buildup” isn’t limited to kitchen floors. Cardiovascular disease is driven by a lifetime of unhealthy habits and a process with an ugly name: atherosclerosis.
In this silent process, a slick mixture of fat and cholesterol in the blood, called plaque, builds upon arteries’ inside walls. This waxy buildup, along with chronic inflammation caused by unhealthy habits like smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, and a steady diet of processed junk, thickens the walls of the vessels. The result: hard, stiff arteries. This can reduce blood flow to the heart and other organs — including the brain — and lead to heart attack and stroke.
The good news: Every heart-healthy action you take may benefit your brain, too.
1. Eat for two — heart and brain. A diet low in bad fats and rich in whole foods benefits them both. Research associates three specific diets — the MIND diet, the Mediterranean diet, and the blood pressure-lowering DASH diet — with a reduced risk of AD. Their common bond: more whole foods and less added sugars and artery-clogging saturated and trans fats.
2. Keep your LDL and HDL in the healthy range. In general, aim for LDL cholesterol below 100 mg/dl and HDL cholesterol at 60 mg/dl or higher.
3. Squelch chronic stress. When you’re swamped by stress, healthy habits tend to fall by the wayside. What’s more, stress causes hormonal and chemical changes in the body that may raise the risk for AD, research suggests. Work on controlling stress so it doesn’t control you.
Commandment #5: Prevent or Manage Type 2 Diabetes
An estimated 29 million Americans have full-blown diabetes, fueled by obesity and less-than-healthy lifestyle habits. People who have this chronic disease are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease as those who don’t. And an estimated 86 million US adults have prediabetes, or elevated blood sugar levels that aren’t yet high enough for a type 2 diabetes diagnosis.
The good news is, that healthy changes can head off type 2 at the pass, according to the Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP), a study of more than 3,000 people at high risk for the disease.
The people in the DPP’s lifestyle change group, who lost 15 pounds, on average, in the study’s first year, reduced their risk of diabetes by 58 percent over 3 years. Age was no barrier to success, but participants ages 60 and older who made healthy lifestyle changes reduced their risk by a staggering 71 percent!
If you’ve already been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, don’t fret. There’s still plenty you can do to protect your brain health. Follow your doctor’s lifestyle recommendations, take your medications as directed, and keep tabs on your blood sugar levels. Every healthy choice makes a difference!
Commandment #6: Brush Up on Your Brain Health
Hopefully, your gums are a dentist’s dream, pink and firm. But if they bleed when you brush or floss, dial your dentist today. An emerging body of evidence associates dental health with mental health, and suggests that gum disease may raise the risk of MCI and dementia later in life.
The take-home message? Take care of your teeth. It may help you brush your way to better brain health.
1. Brush twice a day. Even if you pride yourself on your brush-and-floss game, gum disease is tough to avoid; 47 percent of Americans 30 and over, and 70 percent of those 65 and over, have some form of it. To keep it under control, brush twice a day for 2 minutes at a time and floss at least once a day.
2. See a dentist at least once a year for a cleaning and checkup. Don’t let fear keep you out of the chair. If your gums are pulling away from your teeth, or if you have a foul taste in your mouth that mouthwash or mints can’t mask, make a dental appointment today. Treatment for gum disease, which includes deep cleaning and bacteria-controlling medications, can save your teeth and maybe even protect your brain.
Commandment #7: Take Steps to Snore No More
Raise-the-rafters snoring is no mere annoyance. Especially if the snoring is accompanied by gasps, snorts, or long pauses between breaths. These are symptoms of sleep apnea — a condition characterized by disrupted breathing and sleep and linked to an increased risk of cognitive impairment. Older women with sleep apnea were about twice as likely to develop dementia within a 5-year period as those without the condition, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found.
If you’re a heavy snorer, or suspect that you may have sleep-disordered breathing, CPAP treatment can put you on the path to deep, brain-restoring sleep. These tips can get you started:
1. Get the ball rolling. Because CPAP machines require a prescription, schedule a doctor’s appointment to discuss snoring or breathing concerns. You’ll likely be referred to a sleep specialist, who will order a study to measure your brain activity, heart rate, and other data overnight, as you sleep.
2. “Break in” your mask. Yours may cover just your nose, or both your nose and mouth. Regardless, donning it at bedtime likely will feel strange at first. Consider wearing it for short periods during your downtime, perhaps as you watch TV or read, so it feels more natural when you turn in.
3. Make any needed adjustments. CPAP units and masks are like shoes — you have to find the right “fit.” It’s common to try a few combinations until you hit upon the right one for you. Your doctor, sleep specialist, or home equipment provider can help.
4. Keep it clean. A clean machine works better and helps prevent sinus or nasal infections. Follow the cleaning instructions that come with your machine, clean your mask, tubing, and headgear once a week.
Commandment #8: Minimize Your Exposure to Pesticides
Might an insecticide banned in the United States 40 years ago impact dementia risk today? Could prolonged, on-the-job exposure to pesticides raise the risk of Alzheimer’s disease later in life? Possibly, studies suggest.
Each year, more than 2 billion pounds of pesticides are applied to crops, not to mention homes, parks, schools, and forests. Yikes! Fortunately, these simple tips can help minimize your exposure.
1. Go organic. Eat a wide variety of fruits and veggies, organically grown if possible. This reduces the potential of increased exposure to a single type of pesticide.
2. Give it a wash. Wash produce under running water and dry it with a paper towel or clean cloth.
3. Toss the outer layer. Remove the outer layer of lettuce or other leafy vegetables.
4. Trim the fat. Remove fat and skin from meat, poultry, and fish. This is where pesticide residue accumulates.
5. Use natural pest control methods. To control household pests like ants or mice, or grow a healthy lawn or garden, with no or minimal toxic chemicals, consider using an approach called integrated pest management (IPM). The goal of this health- and environment-friendly method is to prevent pests in the first place, so chemicals aren’t needed to get rid of them.
Commandment #9: Mind Your Medications
In your quest for an ageless brain, don’t overlook your medicine chest. In recent years, several classes of prescription and over-the-counter medications — used to treat common conditions like heartburn, overactive bladder, and sleeplessness — have been linked to a higher risk of dementia. Consider talking to your doctor about the medications below.
Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs)
Used to treat several types of ulcers and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), PPIs work by reducing the stomach’s production of acid. Common PPIs include omeprazole (Prilosec), esomeprazole (Nexium), and lansoprazole (Prevacid).
In a 7-year study, researchers in Germany followed almost 74,000 people ages 75 or older who were dementia-free at the start of the study. Nearly 3,000 used PPIs “regularly” (which the researchers defined as at least one PPI medication in each quarter of an 18-month period). After crunching the data, the researchers found that regular PPI use heightened women’s dementia risk by 42 percent and men’s by 52 percent, compared with nonusers.
Anticholinergic (Antispasmodic) Medications
Used to treat such conditions as overactive bladder, muscle spasms, and breathing problems, this class of drugs blocks the action of acetylcholine. Drugs in this class include the over-the-counter drug diphenhydramine (Benadryl), tricyclic antidepressants like doxepin (Sinequan), antihistamines like chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton), and, for overactive bladder, oxybutynin (Ditropan).
Some research has associated the use of anticholinergic medications at higher doses, or for longer periods of time, with a higher risk of dementia.
Medications in this class of drugs, commonly prescribed to treat sleeplessness and anxiety, include diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), and lorazepam (Ativan). In a study published by the journal BMJ, people who’d taken a BZD for 3 to 6 months, or more than 6 months, raised the risk of AD by 32 percent and 84 percent, respectively. Those who took a long-acting BZD like Valium were at greater risk for the disease than those on a short-acting one like Xanax, Ativan, and triazolam (Halcion).
If you have been prescribed any of these medications, don’t stop taking them, or any prescription drug, without your doctor’s knowledge.
What you can do: Ask your doctor if an alternative medication may be right for you. In some (not all) cases, lifestyle changes may reduce or eliminate their need.
Commandment #10: Stub Out the Butts
The evidence is clear: Smoking is a significant risk factor for AD, a scientific analysis of 43 studies that examined the link between smoking and the disease found. In fact, a recent study estimated that nearly 11 percent of Alzheimer’s cases in the United States, and 14 percent of cases worldwide, may be attributable to smoking.
Ready to set a quit date and reap the brain benefits of a smoke-free life? Whether this is your first quit attempt or one of many, these tips can help increase the odds of success.
2. Don’t sweat your quit method. Considering the nicotine patch? The prescription medication varenicline (Chantix)? A combination of patch and lozenge? All appear to be equally effective, according to studies.
3. Consider white-knuckling it. Which quit approach works better — stopping all at once, commonly known as “cold turkey,” or tapering off gradually in the weeks before Quit Day? As painful as it might seem, research has shown that cold turkey is the more effective quit method.
4. Get smoke-free via text. If you’re determined to quit smoking, you need all the motivation you can get — and that help can be a text away. Consider signing up to receive texts that keep your will strong, such as the service offered by smokefree.gov.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock