There’s being forgetful—we all lose our keys, forget to lock the door, leave a window open in the rain, and wander the mall parking lot for far too long—and then there is Alzheimer’s. Often associated with forgetfulness, which is a common symptom, Alzheimer’s comes with more serious and concerning impacts, such as the inability to remember new information, changes in cognitive thinking, and behavioral shifts. It’s also the most common type of dementia—a decline in mental ability severe enough to effect daily life and function.
Alzheimer’s and dementia are not considered “normal” aspects of aging. In fact, despite common belief, age isn’t always associated with the disease. In the U.S. alone, 5.8 million people are affected by Alzheimer’s, and 200,000 are under the age of 65.
Considering that Alzheimer’s has no current cure, can worsen over time, and is a somewhat mysterious disease, this Alzheimer’s/Brain Awareness Month, learn the six pillars of prevention so you and those you love can do your best to keep your minds and bodies sharp.
Pillar One: Exercise
Not only does physical activity keep your body looking and feeling good, it also promotes healthy brain function. Around 150 minutes of moderate to intense exercise a week can help reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s by 50% (yes, half!) and it can also slow brain deterioration in those who are experiencing the effects of the disease.
To get the most out of your workouts, include both cardio and strength training, which can build muscle mass in the body and mind. Some of the best activities are swimming, running, walking, and weight lifting.
Pillar Two: Socializing
The human brain didn’t develop in isolation. To help prevent deterioration later in life, stay social. The more interactions and face-to-face connections we make, the more our brains work. Maintain a strong network of friends and family, try different ways to meet people, and put yourself out there. If you feel lonely or isolated—as increasing numbers of Americans do—start small by simply leaving the house, by going where people go, or by putting yourself in social situations. If you’re unsure what to do, try volunteering, joining a book club, or taking a class to learn something new.
Pillar Three: Eat Well
You’ve heard this advice before, but maybe not specific to your brain. A balanced, healthy diet not only helps maintain a healthy body and decreases the likelihood of developing heart diseases and diabetes, it also greatly improves your brain functionality and can work against the development of Alzheimer’s.
One possible risk factor for Alzheimer’s is inflammation, which inhibits communication between brain cells. If you have a poor diet high in sugars and refined carbs, these foods can cause sugar spikes that inflame the brain, contributing to mental deterioration. To avoid issues down the road, cut down on added sugars, refined carbs, and trans fats, which can also cause inflammation. Instead, opt for a diet high in fruits and veggies, omega-3 fats, lean fish, whole grains, olive oil, and beans.
Pillar Four: Challenge Yourself
Mental stimulation is a great way to work toward preventing Alzheimer’s. The more we challenge ourselves to learn new things and solve complex problems, the less likely we are to develop dementia. Choose activities that make you think and build on what you already know. Things like learning a new language or studying a new subject are proven ways to increase brain health, and activities like puzzles, riddles, and strategy games can help you form and retain cognitive associations.
Pillar Five: Catch Some ZZZs
Getting good sleep is no joke, and no matter how many times that one friend tells you they can function perfectly on five hours a night, it’s simply not true. Getting a full eight hours of sleep is an important part of maintaining proper function now and in the future. If you notice that sleep deprivation is slowing your mental abilities or affecting your mood, this can be a sign that you’re at greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s later in life.
To ensure your brain is healthy now and as you age, make sleep a priority by creating a schedule for yourself, having a bedtime, putting your phone down well before lights out, and creating a relaxing space to fall asleep.
Pillar Six: Don’t Stress
Stress is a small word with a huge impact. It causes anxiety, can lead to physical ailments like stomach and join pain, and is also a factor in dementia development. Chronic stress leads to shrinkage in memory areas of the brain and deters nerve cell growth, which can contribute to Alzheimer’s development.
Make things easier on yourself and practice stress management, such as deep breathing, making time to have fun, not piling too much on your plate, and building focused time for relaxation into your schedule.
There may not be a cure for Alzheimer’s yet, but with these six pillars, you have a plan for prevention. After all, prevention is often better than any cure. For more information on Alzheimer’s, visit the Alzheimer’s Association, or ask your doctor about resources he or she finds helpful.