Many people falsely believe that dementia is a normal part of aging and if you live long enough, you will become demented. But the truth is that late-onset Alzheimer’s dementia isn’t normal aging. Dimentia stems from years of life events that chronically increase inflammation and oxidative stress on the brain. Knowing this, you can make choices to prevent this devastating disease. The following points cover tips from my book, The Aging Brain: Proven Steps to Prevent Dementia and Sharpen Your Mind, that you can use to reduce your risk for dementia.
Take regular walks in nature
Studies show that getting out into nature reduces activation of the brain’s stress pathways; lowers blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormones, improves sleep; and reduces oxidative stress. Bringing your skin into direct contact with the earth results in an influx of electrons from it into your body, immediately improving your antioxidant defenses. Since the mid-20th century, with the mass introduction of rubber, plastics, and other man-made materials, many people have disconnected from the earth, and they can experience an electron imbalance in their bodies. Resolve this simply by taking a barefoot walk in the grass, on unsealed concrete, or on the beach.
Brush and floss your teeth and get regular dental checkups
Studies show that the people with the fewest teeth have the highest rate of dementia. This is likely because the increase in inflammation from dental decay and infections can cause increased oxidation on the brain.
Ensure seven to eight hours of non-medicated sleep each night
During sleep, the brain removes byproducts of metabolism and consolidates memories. Chronic sleep deprivation contributes to a buildup in oxidative factors, thus damaging the brain, which impairs new learning. Most medications prescribed for sleep interfere with normal sleep architecture and impair memory transfer from the hippocampus to the cortex for long-term storage. Ensure a comfortable sleep environment; remove environmental factors that interfere with sleep (light, noise, and animals) avoid stimulants (caffeine, nicotine, illegal drugs), avoid alcohol at bedtime, and resolve emotional, mental, and relationship stress. If sleep trouble persists, speak with your doctor.
Avoid artificial sweeteners
Studies demonstrate that artificial sweeteners increase the risk of dementia. A high-sugar diet also increases oxidative stress and risk of dementia. However, sugar in morning coffee or tea, for an individual who consumes an otherwise low-sugar diet, isn’t associated with an increased risk with Alzheimer’s dementia. On the other hand, artificial sweeteners in the morning coffee or tea of a person who consumes a low-sugar diet are associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s dementia.
Engage in regular physical exercise
Regular physical exercise promotes better physical and mental health. When you exercise regularly, your body produces powerful antiinflammatory factors, reducing oxidative stress on the brain. Additionally, exercise turns on various neurotrophins, which are proteins that act like fertilizer for the brain, causing new neuronal connections to sprout. In fact, one study documented that exercise in individuals over the age of 65 resulted in a 2-percent growth of the hippocampus (the part of the brain where new memories form), which reversed 2 years of aging. Exercise improves capillary growth, blood flow to the brain, and insulin sensitivity in the brain and body. Within the brain, insulin modulates clearance of amyloid, which is a protein associated with Alzheimer’s dementia. Thus, exercise improves insulin sensitivity and amyloid clearance reduce Alzheimer’s risk.
Eat an antiinflammatory diet
Multiple studies document that fast-food, junk-food, and high-sugar diets are associated with increased inflammation, oxidative stress, and higher rates of dementia. Conversely, whole-food diets high in fruits, nuts, and vegetables correlate with better brain volume, better memory and cognitive ability, and lower rates of dementia. Specific foods associated with better brain function included oily fish high in the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA. Post mortem examination of brains comparing individuals who ate fish at least once per week with those who ate fish less than once per week found significantly less Alzheimer’s pathology in the brains of those who ate fish regularly. Those who ate walnuts regularly had better cognitive and memory performance than those who didn’t, and lab studies found that walnut extract dissolved the toxic proteins associated with Alzheimer’s dementia.
Engage in regular mental relaxation and decompression
Chronic unremitting mental stress activates the brain’s stress circuitry, activating the immune system and increasing inflammatory cascades, and it’s associated with increased risk of dementia. Thus, persons who regularly meditate, take a weekly day of rest, and have the ability to unwind, relax, and turn off mental stress have a lower risk of dementia. Although we all pass through time at the same rate, we do not all age at the same rate. Lifestyle choices can slow the aging process. I encourage you to live long and live well—the choices are yours.
Timothy R. Jennings, MD, DFAPA is past-president of the Tennessee and Southern Psychiatric Association and is the author of The Aging Brain: Proven Steps to Prevent Dementia and Sharpen Your Mind.