Promote and protect your cognitive function: seven pillars of dementia prevention

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There are many things that individuals can do to promote cognitive function. Being proactive in overall health and lifestyle may increase brain flexibility as well as encourage a positive mental state.

Social Engagement: Be Social. Individuals with decreased social engagement are at increased risk for memory issues. Suggestions: volunteer or be involved in the community, join a club, social group or spiritual group, know your neighbors, get out, go to the movies, park, museum.

Pets have tremendous benefits, both physically and mentally.

Regular Exercise: Be physically active. Exercise with cardio and strength training can reduce risk by 50 percent and can slow further deterioration by stimulating the brain’s ability to maintain old connections and make new ones. 150 minutes of moderately intense exercise per week will build muscles. Include balance and coordination exercises with yoga or Tai Chi. Walking 6-9 miles/week can prevent brain shrinkage and memory loss. Elders who walk have more grey matter in their brains.

Stress Management: Learn ways to manage the stress in life. Cortisol, the stress hormone, damages the brain over time and leads to memory problems. Also, anxiety and stress cause difficulty with memory. When stressed you suffer memory lapses and have trouble learning or concentrating. Breathe slowly during daily relaxation activities, walk, play with pets, yoga or a bath, find inner peace with meditation/prayer. Simply make fun a priority keeping your sense of humor and include an ability to laugh at yourself; laughing helps the body fight stress.

Mental Stimulation: Keep your brain intellectually engaged. Studies have shown that the more mentally active you are the less your risk for developing cognitive decline. Ideas to be intellectually active: play games, especially strategy ones like chess, bridge, scrabble, try crossword puzzles or sudoku, read newspapers, magazines and books, engage in intellectual discussions and debates, practice memorization using rhymes and pattern, learn a new skill, game, recipe, musical instrument, language, take a course in an unfamiliar subject, start a new hobby, one that involves more complex planning and execution like quilting, gardening, building, follow the “Road Less Traveled” taking a new route, use non-dominate hand. Varying your habits keep those neurons firing.

Quality Sleep: Get plenty of sleep. Sleep is needed for memory consolidation. Decreased sleep reduces the growth of new cells in the hippocampus, leading to problems with memory, concentration and decision making. Establish a bedtime ritual that is relaxing, such as a bath, light stretching, journaling, no screen time 1-2 hours before bed and dim lights before bed signaling the brain to wind down. Try to quiet the inner chatter; if anxiety or stress keeps you awake, get out of bed and spend 20 minutes reading or relaxing in another room. Check for sleep apnea and talk to your doctor if suspected. Be smart about short napping only in early afternoon.

Healthy Diet: Pay attention to what you eat. As Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, decrease sugar and sugar substitutes, decrease processed foods, eat foods rich in Omega-3’s such as salmon, tuna, walnuts and flaxseeds, eat healthy fats, olive oil, grass fed beef, increase whole grain carbohydrates, drink plenty of water and decaf teas especially green tea. Maintaining a healthy weight is critical; a nutritionist or doctor can assist or simply do not eat very many ‘white’ foods such as desserts, pastas, potatoes and white bread.

Manage your health conditions and medications: Be an active participant in managing your health especially ones that affect your cognition. Heart health is brain health so make all efforts to avoid high blood pressure and high cholesterol.  There is a strong link between metabolic disorders such as diabetes/ high sugar and dementia. Alzheimer’s is increasingly called “diabetes of the brain”. Drink alcohol in moderation though occasional wine can decrease risk. Studies have shown that you can decrease the risk of dementia by 50 percent if you stop smoking.

Researched and Prepared by: Nancy L. Frodermann, RN, MSN

Alzheimer Association, Alzheimer Research and Prevention Foundation