Boost Your Brain Health With Staying Sharp
Two studies also reinforced the effect early in life that negative lifestyle habits, like smoking and excessive drinking, can have on dementia risk. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco followed more than 3,000 young adults ages 18 to 30 for 25 years and found that smoking over a pack a day for more than a decade was associated with reduced cognitive function that showed up as early as the 40s. “There have been a lot of studies looking at smoking later in life and cognitive impairment, but none that demonstrates that effects can show up this early,” says study author Amber Bahorik, a postdoctoral researcher at UCSF. Another study presented by Bahorik found that female veterans with alcohol-use disorder had three times the risk of developing dementia.
The research presented also stresses the importance of making sure to keep your brain active and engaged throughout your lifetime, observes Babak Tousi, M.D., a dementia specialist at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. Although living in an area with high air pollution has been shown to raise dementia risk, a University of Southern California study presented today found that older women with high cognitive reserve (calculated based on cognitive tests, years of education, job status, and levels of physical activity) showed only about a 20 percent increased risk of developing the condition, compared with 113 percent among those with lower cognitive reserve. “Your brain is like any other muscle in your body — the more you strengthen it, the more resistant it will be to environmental and physical stress,” Tousi explains.
And if these recommendations altogether seem a little overwhelming, experts stress that taking even small steps toward a healthier lifestyle is worthwhile. When it comes to diet and dementia risk, the best research now points to the MIND diet, a hybrid of the Mediterranean and DASH (dietary approaches to stop hypertension) diets that's rich in whole grains; berries; green, leafy vegetables; olive oil; poultry; and fish. “I would encourage consuming more vegetables, particularly leafy greens, and to replace red meat with poultry and avoid fried foods,” Dhana says. Up to one glass of wine a day can also be beneficial, he adds, provided it's paired with a healthy diet and not smoking cigarettes. If exercise seems daunting, just make sure you incorporate brisk walking into your daily routine most days of the week. And make time each day to read the paper or books, play card games or do a crossword puzzle. “The typical processs of aging is associated with a decline in memory, processing speed and reasoning, even in the absence of dementia,” Dhana notes. “That makes it even more important for older adults to engage in stimulating cognitive activities to maintain their cognitive skills."
Moving forward, the Alzheimer's Association is leading the U.S. Study to Protect Brain Health Through Lifestyle Intervention to Reduce Risk (U.S. POINTER), the first large-scale examination of combined interventions, including physical exercise, nutritional counseling, and cognitive and social stimulation, in the United States. Results are expected in 2023. “What we are starting to see, across the board, whether you inherited a genetic predisposition to dementia or live in a place that increases your risk, is that you may be able to overcome some of this with lifestyle,” Carrillo says. “Even more exciting, even a little bit counts."