There’s been a wave of progress in recent years when it comes to dementia discoveries. Two Alzheimer’s drugs have received the green light from the Food and Drug Administration, and more are being tested in clinical trials. All the while, researchers are continuing to explore the various underlying causes of dementia so they can develop therapies to target them.
That’s not all: More information is coming to light on prevention, and multiple lines of evidence show that it’s possible to reduce the risk of dementia as we age.
Here are seven habits that can boost your brain health in your 50s and beyond.
1. Keep your blood pressure under control
Accumulating research shows that what’s good for the heart is good for the brain — and managing your blood pressure is neurologist Marwan Sabbagh’s top recommendation to ensure healthy cognitive aging. “It’s one of the best ways to optimize brain health,” says Sabbagh, vice chairman for research at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix.
A 2019 study, known as 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, or MCI, which is an established risk factor for dementia. The intensive treatment group also saw a reduction in the combined risk of MCI and dementia, and their brains had fewer lesions — indications of tiny damaged areas.
A more recent study published in JAMA Network Open found that high blood pressure in early adulthood was linked to brain changes associated with neurodegeneration and dementia, especially in men.
Nearly half of U.S. adults have high blood pressure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you notice that your blood pressure is creeping up, talk with your health care provider about the best treatment plan. High blood pressure can be lowered with a healthy diet, regular exercise, limited alcohol consumption and medication.
2. Get regular exercise
Beyond increasing blood flow to the brain, exercise 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 neurons, the cells that send and receive signals from the brain.
BDNF also “increases the connections between neurons, and it sustains them in the face of environmental and other challenges,” explains 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.
One study found that exercise increased the size of the hippocampus (the brain region destroyed by Alzheimer’s disease) by 2 percent; that’s the equivalent of “reversing” age-related volume loss by one to two years. Even short bursts of moderate to intense activity have been linked with brain benefits.
National guidelines recommend that older adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week, plus at least two days a week of strength training. But the best exercise program is the one you can consistently do, Daffner says. He likes Fitbit and step-tracking phone apps so you can see your progress in real time. Group exercise can also be helpful because it combines the benefits of working out with important social connections.
“Being physically active is one of the most important things that we have control over,” Daffner says. “And it’s not just for brain health — it promotes better sleep, lower stress, improved cardiovascular health and even lessens the chance of falls as we get older.”