Modifiable Lifestyle Choices
How to improve your health and reduce your risk
of Alzheimer’s dementia
To begin improving your health and reducing your risk of dementia, you need to address seven modifiable lifestyle factors:
- Improving sleep
- Moving more (exercise)
- Eating healthy food
- Decreasing stress
- Detoxifying your air, water, and environment
- Improving social connections
- Sensory and mental stimulation
When you address these modifiable lifestyle factors, you will improve your gut, mitochondria, hormones, immune system/inflammation, heart and lymph systems, and your muscles and bones, providing health to your body.
Let’s consider each in turn.
To be healthy, you need regular and ample sleep. When you haven’t had enough sleep, your thinking almost immediately becomes foggy and slow. Long-term, the damage to your brain is especially severe because so much healing and protection occurs in the brain as you sleep.
Your brain recognizes that lack of sleep is a severe threat to your health. If sustained, not getting enough sleep contributes to a host of health problems, including diabetes, heart trouble, mental problems, and damaging expressions of genes throughout your body.
Increasing your movement will benefit your brain and the rest of your body. Perhaps most importantly, exercise strengthens your heart, enabling it to pump more blood to your body. In the brain, blood is the source of nutrients and oxygen, so getting too little blood eventually adds up to big problems. Exercise delivers a healthy feast to your brain. Good for your heart = good for your brain.
Also important, exercise increases the effectiveness of two proteins, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and klotho. These proteins protect your brain from dementia.
Eating Healthy Food
Good food is medicine, and bad food is poison. You get to decide which kind you give your body and brain. Good food includes fruits and vegetables, healthy fats with a special focus on omega-3 fatty acids, healthy proteins in the right amount, and nutrient- and fiber-rich carbohydrates. This food supports healthy longevity.
Bad food works against our health and accelerates our aging. Bad food includes fast food, processed food, added sugar, stale and overused oils, and too many salty, fried foods. This is the “standard American diet” (SAD), and it will make you more than sad. It will make you sick. You can choose something better.
When your body senses danger, your brain sends out an alert that releases a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. The adrenaline amps up your energy so you can deal with the threat. Once the danger goes away, your body relaxes again. When a feeling of danger doesn’t go away, a heightened level of stress continues. This chronic stress contributes to high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, fatigue, and heart problems. In your brain, maintaining this stress takes so much energy that cells in certain parts of your brain begin to suffer—including your hippocampus, the memory center. In short, stress is deadly to your memory and your ability to reason.
Detoxifying Your Air, Water, and Environment
You may have heard that you are what you eat. You are also what you breathe, touch, and drink. Unfortunately, our contemporary environment has many toxins that damage our nervous and immune systems, cells, hormones, and genetic material. These toxins are present in water, air, pesticides, personal care products, and other contaminants. They cause inflammation in the brain, a risk factor for dementia. You have control over many of these toxins. Eliminating them—or at least limiting them—will dramatically reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s dementia.
Improving Social Connections
In addition to adding to your personal happiness and mental comfort, social connections have a profound influence on your brain by triggering neural connections in your brain. Even a basic conversation with friends and family requires quick decisions, appropriate choices of words, and nonverbal responses. More complex interactions affect your emotions, exercising your ability to respond appropriately with laughter, sorrow, surprise, empathy, or curiosity. Because all these responses require memory, attention, and self-control, they help to keep your brain nimble and your heart happy. So make a paint to maintain your close social connections and create new ones.
Increasing Sensory and Mental Stimulation
The brain has the power to create new neural pathways—the routes that messages travel through the brain from neuron to neuron. As we age, obstacles develop in the brain that can hinder the movement of messages. Creating multiple “work-arounds” so messages can continue protects our memories and ability to reason. One way you can create these multiple pathways is to stimulate new physical and mental sensations.
Stimulate your sense of smell with aromatherapy, your hearing with music, and your sight with bright colors. Stimulate your sense of touch with massage or other physical stimulation, and your taste with new flavors. Because hearing and vision problems diminish neural pathways, get regular check-ups and follow up with treatment.
Stimulate your thoughts with learning that stretches you. It’s not easy or often fun to blaze a trail through thick undergrowth. It also takes work to blaze new pathways through your brain, so don’t count on games and puzzles to achieve this result for your brain. You need something that challenges you. Learning is even better if it involves more than one sense, like learning a new language, a new musical instrument, or a new kind of dance.