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How to prevent dementia: 5 essential things science says you should be doing now

How to Keep Your Mind Sharp, Fend Off Age, and Prevent Dementia

If you want to enjoy a fun retirement, it’s critical that adults engage in healthy behaviors well before reaching senior citizen status.

Brain health begins with habits as young adults. To achieve a healthy mind, you can’t just begin employing tactics once you’re a senior citizen. Managing stress, eating right, and working out all need to be a part of healthy routines in your twenties, thirties, and forties to lower the risk factors of dementia and other deteriorative brain impairments.

A ball of energy with electricity beaming all over the place.
Hal Gatewood

The advantage of a lot of these practices is that participating is not only good for your future health, but raises your present well-being. Here are some habits to take up today to uplift your mind now and protect it down the road.

Exercise Regularly

The first thing that you can do is to find the motivation to either begin or continue exercising. Research studies show that people who participate in physical activity reduce their risk of declining mental function as they age, thus lowering their chances of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s.

man doing hip exercise.

The Mayo Clinic found that exercise increases blood flow to your brain, and, done regularly, can counter a natural decline in brain connections.

Shoot for any type of strenuous movement for 30 to 60 minutes three to six times per week. This can include any type of impactful activity from running, lifting weights, climbing, tennis, walking, swimming, and much more.

Get Good Sleep

Activity during the day not only improves all of your systems, but wearing out the body encourages quality sleep. When you sleep, your unconscious mind sorts through and orders the information that’s taken in during the day. Memories and activities consolidate into categories while clearing “plaque-forming amyloids and tau proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease,” according to the American Heart Association.

A man sleeps in his bed
Tony Alter / Flickr

Socialize and Interact

Age, nuclear family units, and overwork can tend to isolate. It may be harder to connect with people if you’re busy raising kids and making a living, but these essential activities can eventually cut people off from other interactions as they get older, especially as children leave and jobs end.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

It’s critical to cognitive health to maintain connections with friends, relatives, and communities. Face-to-face interactions offer complex mental engagements — reading facial expressions, interpreting phonetic sounds, analyzing social contexts, etc. — that are crucial to keeping brains in shape now and later in life.

Meaningful human interactions help form bonds that support brain health and overall health. A longitudinal study, beginning in 1989, examined the long-living Taiwanese people over 14 years. Results showed that those with large social networks were 26% less likely to develop dementia than those with only a few connections.

Avoid a High-Sugar Diet

There’s a reason that we’re attracted to sugar. The sweet stuff provides a quick burst of energy in addition to a dopamine drop. That’s because there’s no organ that craves sugar more than the brain. Natural sugars found in honey, maple syrup, and fruit, can help boost your brain health.

A pancake with strawberries, blueberries, and banana slices on a striped cloth on a table.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

That’s because these substances contain glucose, a form of sugar that fuels cellular activities. Fructose, on the other hand, is the sugar found in many artificial, processed foods, and isn’t much use to minds. Too many unhealthy processed foods like baked goods and soda, which are often loaded with refined sugars (often delivered via high-fructose corn syrup) can clog the brain with too much sugar.

Studies have linked high-sugar diets to memory impairment and hippocampal plasticity — the brain’s ability to form new memories.

Learn or Improve a Skill

Speaking of new memories, teaching your brain to interact with your body to practice a skill is a very high-level activity for the mind. A 2017 AARP-funded study, “Engage Your Brain: GCBH Recommendations on Cognitively Stimulating Activities,” gathered together more than 20 of the world’s leading brain health experts together in Washington, D.C. to examine how best to employ cognitive stimulation for adults ages 50 and older.

One of the critical pillars of keeping over-50 minds engaged was cognitively stimulating experiential learning like gardening, learning a martial art, practicing a new language, or learning how to play the guitar. For minds of any age, one of the best ways to flex the muscle between your ears is to dedicate yourself to a novel skill.

Play Video Games

While crosswords, Sudoku, and photo finder activities are all well and good, there is real evidence to show that video games may help grow brains.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

A 2015 joint study between Macquarie University in Sydney and the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China revealed “structural and functional reinforcements in the gamers’ brain using functional MRI.” In other words, brain researchers could witness gray matter increase in volume and networking links strengthen while participants played action video games.

Action games require not only memory encoding and retrieval to navigate through worlds, but improve hand-eye motor coordination, temporal processing abilities, and additional higher-order functions like problem-solving and decision making. These capacities are all critical for brain function.

Quit Smoking

Most people know how harmful smoking tobacco is for cardiovascular health. What’s not as well-known is that smoking not only damages the heart and lungs, but the brain.

The PharmEasy blog cites a 2017 study that showed that smoking shrunk vital tissues in both men’s and women’s brains. Results indicate that smoking affects the subcortical brain regions (below the cortex), reducing pleasure sensations, hormone production, and memory retainment. Losing brain capacity, especially memory, thus leads to an increased risk of dementia.

This is by far not a cumulative list, but it is comprehensive. Brain health goes hand-in-hand with general health, which can be at once easy to support and tough to sustain. Healthy eaters might also smoke, and fitness gurus might also be junk food lovers. The point is that there is no one way to live, and no one way to participate in a healthy life. Living a long life and staving off things like dementia and Alzheimer’s, however, does require some awareness and maintenance each and every day. So pick up an apple and fire up the Xbox to get a head start on positive, brain-healthy activities now.

Matthew Denis
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Matt Denis is an on-the-go remote multimedia reporter, exploring arts, culture, and the existential in the Pacific Northwest…
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