AARP Eye Center
The search for effective treatments, not to mention a cure, for Alzheimer's disease and other memory disorders has been a frustrating path of disappointment. Thirty-three investigational drugs have made it to the final stage of experimental testing, and every one has failed. In fact, doctors are still treating the symptoms of Alzheimer's with the same medications they've had since 2003.
But as treatment research struggles, data on prevention continue to soar. Multiple lines of evidence from all around the world show that it is possible to reduce the risk of dementia as we age — just not with drugs.
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"We would all like to just take a pill to solve challenging medical problems,” says Kirk R. Daffner, M.D., chief of cognitive and behavioral neurology at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital and a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. “And a one-and-done approach is certainly attractive. But that is probably not going to happen with Alzheimer's disease.”
What does seem to work, however, is a healthy lifestyle. Here are seven habits that can boost your brain health in your 50s and beyond.
1. Keep your blood pressure under control
Recommendations that promote heart health also promote brain health. But the story is more complicated than just ensuring good blood flow to the brain.
Heart and brain health are woven together not only by lifestyle factors but by genetics, cholesterol metabolism, and the health and integrity of the cardiovascular system — from major vessels to the tiniest capillaries — says Marwan Sabbagh, M.D., director of translational research at the Cleveland Clinic's Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas.
Blood pressure management — which can be achieved with steps including a well-balanced diet, exercise and medication — is Sabbagh's top recommendation to ensure healthy cognitive aging. “It's one of the best ways to optimize brain health,” he says.
A 2019 study, “SPRINT MIND,” assessed dementia risk in patients who had either intensive (120 mmHg) or standard (140 mmHg) blood pressure control. Patients in the intensive control group were 19 percent less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment (considered to be pre-Alzheimer's) and 17 percent less likely to develop all-cause dementia. Their brains also had fewer lesions — indications of tiny damaged areas.
If you notice that your blood pressure is creeping up, talk with your health care provider about the best treatment plan.
2. Get regular exercise
Beyond increasing blood flow to the brain, exercise — particularly running — can be a boon for brain health because it generates the release of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes the growth of the cells that send and receive signals from the brain, called neurons. BDNF also “increases the connections between neurons, and it sustains them in the face of environmental and other challenges,” Daffner explains.