There are 50 million people worldwide with Alzheimer’s disease, and while much remains mysterious about Alzheimer’s, progress is being made. Many of our researchers are investigating lifestyle activities and interventions to determine which would assist with keeping our brains as healthy as possible for as long as possible.
Dr. Rudy Tanzi of Harvard Medical School, the Chair of the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund Research Leadership Group, says we know more than you might think about how to keep our brains healthy. The good news is that there are proven ways to reduce the inflammation in the brain that is a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease, and he refers to six steps everyone can take as a SHIELD for their brain.
The impact of sleep on Alzheimer’s disease development has been studied extensively. During sleep, your brain has a natural system for clearing out the debris that builds up and can be destructive, including amyloid beta plaque and tau. When there is too much plaque in the brain, cell function may be compromised and the plaque can bind to nerve cells, harming them over time. Lack of sleep interferes with the brain’s ability to clear the debris. Aim for at least eight hours of sleep each night to ensure your brain has the chance to carry out this cleanup process. “If you are not able to get eight hours of continuous sleep, take naps,” Dr. Tanzi says.
Studies show that stress affects how the brain functions. Excessive levels of stress can cause and exacerbate disease, in large part through the activation of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis which elevates cortisol levels. High levels of blood cortisol have a negative impact on memory and can increase levels of inflammation. There is evidence that ongoing, chronic stress may rewire the brain. It is important to find ways to reduce stress. Incorporating relaxation techniques such as meditation into our daily lives can help with overall stress management.
A six-year study published in 2013 with adults older than 65 who had not yet shown cognitive impairment found that those with higher levels of social interaction were less likely to develop dementia. Since this study was finalized, numerous other studies have shown that social interaction preserves cognitive function, as well as a strong connection between loneliness and impaired cognitive function. Numerous studies confirm that older adults with dementia who have a strong social network experience delayed cognitive function. There are many benefits to staying socially active by engaging with friends and family and meeting new people. These include a protective influence on the comprehension and reasoning ability as well as a lower risk of developing symptoms of memory loss. An active social life can open up a new world of opportunity and provide motivation to introduce healthy habits into your life.
Exercise has been shown to create biochemical changes in the brain related to the health of our nerve cells. In short, exercise facilitates the creation of new nerves and synapses, referred to as neurogenesis, in the hippocampus of the brain. The hippocampus is crucial for memory retrieval and the formation of new memories. Research has found that one of the first areas in the brain affected by Alzheimer’s disease is the hippocampus. Exercise helps prevent atrophy in this area of the brain. The recommendation is to move more: whatever your current level of exercise, just move a little more. Even if you are sedentary, begin by taking a short walk, and increase the length of your walks over time.
LEARN NEW THINGS
In addition to physical exercise, mental exercise is a factor in delaying cognitive decline. Learning new things as we age can keep us mentally sharp and builds our neural networks. For example, reading books, learning a new language or new field of knowledge, practicing memorizing lists or engaging in a new hobby helps keep the brain stimulated. The more challenging and complex, the greater the benefit. “The more synapses you make, the more you can lose before you lose it,” Tanzi says.
The Mediterranean diet has been shown to benefit your brain the most. That diet emphasizes eating more fruits and vegetables, nuts, olive oil and fish, and reducing consumption of red meat. “The Mediterranean dietis best for your brain,” says Tanzi, adding that your diet has an effect on your microbiome and neuroinflammation.
Dr. Tanzi stresses that making small changes every day can help the health of your brain. “And,” he points out, “these are all things you can do now.”