November is National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month, and even though the risk of having Alzheimer’s can seem a long way off, it’s never too soon to think about prevention. And there are things you can do today to help keep your brain sharp for years to come.
Alzheimer’s falls under the category of dementia, a broad term for a degenerative brain disease associated with old age. Individuals with Alzheimer’s experience a decreased ability to carry out daily functions that are essential for healthy, independent living. Because Alzheimer’s is associated with individuals 65 years and older, age is the biggest risk factor for the disease. However, the disease is not considered to be a normal, healthy part of aging. In other words, we shouldn’t expect Alzheimer’s in the same way that we expect wrinkles or gray hair.
Aside from age, genetics and lifestyle factors can contribute to Alzheimer’s risk. The Mayo Clinic has a list of genes that may increase a person’s disposition for developing the disease. It goes without saying that we can’t exactly change our age or genes. That leaves us with lifestyle habits—the only factor that we can control every aspect of. The good news is that healthy habits today can make a difference in your long-term brain health. Here’s what you can do.
01. GET ENOUGH SLEEP.
In a society full of appointments and deadlines, it’s difficult to get enough shut-eye. This is especially true if you have children, work a sporadic schedule, or travel often. And while your brain may feel like it needs that third cup of coffee on a Monday morning, it’s probably better off with just a little more sleep.
According to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, regularly getting little sleep was associated with a higher level of beta-amyloid, a protein that is found in high levels in Alzheimer’s patients. This protein is considered to be a marker of the disease and is used for diagnosis.
Sleep is vital for the human body. It’s your chance to recharge and rewire. This is especially true when we’re talking about the brain. It’s no surprise that it’s impossible to focus after a sleepless night.
Over time, continual lack of sleep can take a toll on the brain. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke states that getting enough sleep is necessary for your nervous system as well. Without this much-needed time off, your neurons will start feeling just as tired as you do.
While our cells are doing their thing, they produce byproducts (chemical “waste”) as a result of natural processes. If your body doesn’t get enough rest, these chemicals build up and “pollute” your system.
The National Institutes of Health did an interesting study regarding this concept. Researchers dyed and observed cerebrospinal fluid during periods of sleep. They noticed that when beta-amyloid was added to the picture, the protein disappeared during sleep. Considering this particular protein is known to accumulate in the brain tissue of Alzheimer’s patients, the results of this experiment speak volumes.
Admittedly, it can be tough to get a full night’s rest. But think of it this way: Getting enough sleep isn’t a “treat” for your body. It’s a necessity. Your body and brain need rest in order to take on each day. It may mean cutting out a few more activities or “just one more email,” but you’ll benefit so much more in the long run.
02. STIMULATE YOUR BRAIN.
We’re always told to stay active and keep our bodies moving. Turns out, our brains happen to need just as much exercise as the rest of our body. This means constantly learning, stimulating your thoughts, and challenging yourself in healthy ways.
The Alzheimer’s Association states that staying mentally active may help strengthen nerve cells. In fact, regular emotional and mental stimulation have been found to encourage new nerve cell growth. As a result, the more you put your brain to work, the more experienced it gets at doing what it does best.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you need to learn four new languages and snag a spot on Jeopardy. A simple, inexpensive activity such as daily reading or journal writing is an amazing start. It gets those juices flowing, making sure your brain is actively forming new thoughts. A study by Annals of the New York Academy of Science even suggests that listening to music can help promote healthy aging of the brain. This is most likely due to the emotions and memories formed while listening to good tunes.
Simply doing what you love is another great way to keep your brain in tip-top shape. Not only will it add to your happiness, but it will also fuel your passion and sense of fulfillment. Take it up a notch, and expand on your knowledge of a favorite hobby or take on a totally new hobby. Every little bit counts, and there is always something to learn.
The awesome part about keeping yourself mentally stimulated is that you can do it alone or with someone else. Not only can it add to your social life and well-being, but you can also share your knowledge and keep your brain on its A game.
03. REDUCE HEART DISEASE RISK.
When you think of Alzheimer’s disease, there’s a good chance you think just of the brain. However, this condition is a bit more complex. Because the brain has a million blood vessels running through it, anything that impacts heart health is just as important.
For starters, good heart health begins with controlling cholesterol and blood pressure. A healthy cholesterol level and blood pressure will ensure that your heart is efficiently pumping blood to the rest of your body. When blood pressure is too high, a condition known as hypertension forms. This can stress out your blood vessels, interfering with the amount of blood that is dispersed throughout your body.
This holds true for how your heart impacts your brain. Johns Hopkins Medicine says that high blood pressure negatively affects the amount of blood being pumped to your noggin, affecting cognition and normal functioning. To top it off, blood pressure was also correlated with high levels of beta-amyloid, that sinister biomarker for Alzheimer’s.
So, what’s a youngish girl to do? Living a heart-healthy lifestyle will protect you on all fronts. The American Heart Association recommends exercising at least five times a week for thirty minutes a pop. Eating a well-rounded diet full of fruits, veggies, and whole grains helps promote a healthy heart and weight. Refraining from smoking and limiting alcohol intake will also keep the heart in healthy shape.
Though we can’t halt the natural aging process, we can certainly tweak our lifestyle to honor our mind and body. Our mental health is irreplaceable, stressing the importance of treating it well. Don’t forget to do your mind a favor by remembering these three tips during November’s Alzheimer’s awareness—and beyond.
Art Credit: Alessandra Olanow