Contributor: Ronan Factora, MD
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Most Americans fear getting dementia from Alzheimer’s disease more than any other disease, including cancer, based on surveys conducted by MetLife – and rightfully so.
Dementia can take away your memories, alter your personality, reduce your independence and, in extreme circumstances, force you out of your home. It is indiscriminate, afflicting people of all ethnic backgrounds, levels of education and socioeconomic classes.
Its burden extends beyond the patient because of the increasing level of care demanded of the patient’s family, friends and community. Right now, we don’t have a cure.
However, a growing body of evidence supports ways people can act to help prevent this disease from getting a grip on their minds.
Brain health is in our hands
Some time ago, a study examined how differences in a person’s background and lifestyle can influence the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. This study, called the Nun Study, followed a group of Roman Catholic nuns from entry in a convent to their deaths. These individuals donated their brains to science for study. Results revealed that the level of education one had upon entry into the convent was associated with a lower risk of developing clinical Alzheimer’s disease later in life.
A more recent study looked at a combination of diet, exercise, cognitive training and monitoring of vascular risk factors over a two-year period to see its effect on cognitive function in a large at-risk population of Finnish seniors. It found that individuals in the intervention group were more likely to have better or stable cognitive function compared to those who did not receive the intervention.
These studies show many of the factors that help maintain our brain health are really in our hands. Often, people look for the magic bullet cure for dementia. Seeking a cure weighs heavily on the minds of aging baby boomers.
While we wait for a cure, though, lifestyle interventions can start providing a benefit. According to the above findings — which are only a small piece of the body of knowledge we have supporting the benefits of good lifestyle choices — benefits can be derived in as soon as two years! We can surmise that the earlier these changes are made, the greater benefit you can get. But that means it’s never too late to get the benefits of such interventions. The challenge for the individual is implementing changes and incorporating them into his or her daily life.
Of course, you don’t have to implement diet, exercise and cognitive training changes all at once, and certainly you don’t need to choose the most strenuous challenges first, but you do have to start somewhere.
For exercise, you can start with a basic walking program – 30 minutes daily for four or more days a week, increasing gradually over time and choosing more difficult activities as the work gets easier. Exercise your mind by reading, playing games, doing puzzles, playing a musical instrument, picking up an old hobby or trying something new– these are all ways to continuously learn. Socialization is also important. Maintaining relationships with friends, family and your community keeps you connected and helps with your mood – and those interactions have a positive effect on your brain function.
Diet, exercise and cognitive training – the three pillars of wellness – may seem easy and mundane, but their effects are powerful and long-lasting, and their benefits should not be discounted.
Brain health guide
This post is based on one of a series of articles produced by U.S. News & World Report in association with the medical experts at Cleveland Clinic.