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Many of us have witnessed the heartbreaking effects of cognitive decline in a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia. The forgetfulness, disorientation and frustration that accompanies these conditions can make daily life complicated and cast a shadow on what should be the “golden years” of retirement.
If you have a family history of cognitive decline, you might fear you’re destined for the same fate. But a recent study presented by Rush University Medical Center at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference suggests that a healthy lifestyle leads to reduced dementia risk, regardless of genetic risk. Another study showed lifestyle choices can lower risk even for those who are genetically predisposed to the disease.
“There’s still so much we don’t know about the factors that cause an individual to face cognitive decline, but it’s always inspiring when new research provides new hope and understanding,” says Neurology and Vascular Neurology expert Dr. Glenn Kolluri of AdventHealth Deland.
5 Key Lifestyle Factors for Cognitive Health
According to the research, these are the healthy habits you can adopt for your best possible cognitive health:
- Engaging in late-life cognitive activities
- Exercising at a moderate to vigorous level for at least 150 minutes a week
- Consuming a brain-supporting diet
- Light-to-moderate alcohol consumption
- Not smoking
The Rush University study found that participants who followed four out of five of these lifestyle behaviors — including regular exercise, cognitive stimulation, a brain-healthy diet and not smoking — over a six-year period had a 60% lower risk of developing Alzheimer's when compared to people who practiced only one or none of these habits.
Scientists are still studying exactly how and why this protective effect occurs, but in the meantime, we can make choices now that will potentially safeguard our cognitive function decades down the line.
Dementia-Fighting Habits in Daily Life
A healthy lifestyle has numerous whole-health benefits, but where should you start? Here are some ideas for adopting the habits that will boost your body, mind and spirit.
Engage in Late-Life Cognitive Activities
If you’ve ever forgotten a foreign language you learned in high school or misplaced the name of an old friend, you know that the mind is like a muscle that weakens without consistent use.
“As we get older, it’s even more important that we stay mentally stimulated and appropriately challenged,” said Dr. Kolluri. “Find what works for you; maybe it’s doing the crossword puzzle every morning while you eat breakfast, or joining a book club.”
Activities that involve others provide the added bonus of fostering interpersonal relationships, another incredibly important factor in healthy aging. Consider volunteering or taking a class that keeps you connected with others while also being mentally stimulating.
Exercise at Least 150 Minutes a Week
If this number seems intimidating, remember that exercise can be spread throughout the day and fit naturally into your routine. It also doesn’t have to mean joining a gym or finding an entirely new hobby.
“I like to remind patients that the easiest form of exercise is free and convenient,” says Dr. Kolluri. “Walk to your mailbox each day and then add one lap around the block. Or spend half an hour every day weeding your garden and watering your plants.”
When you choose physical activity that’s accessible and enjoyable, you’re more likely to stick with it regularly. If you have an injury or condition that keeps you from being as mobile as you’d like, ask your doctor or physical therapist for safe and effective exercise options.
Eat a Brain-Supporting Diet
The DASH diet, specifically, has the ability to lower blood pressure and improve mental health. Vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, seafood, poultry and olive oil are smart additions to your daily meals, while red meat, dairy, sweets and fried foods should be consumed sparingly.
Less is more: limiting alcohol consumption benefits your physical, emotional and spiritual health. Ask your doctor for a personalized recommendation when it comes to your alcohol consumption.
Smoking increases your risk for a wide range of conditions, from heart disease to cancer. And secondhand smoke puts those around you in danger of health complications, too.
“The bottom line is smoking causes your health to deteriorate in every aspect, including cognitive function,” explained Dr. Kolluri. “When you stop smoking, you’re able to reclaim a fuller life and better quality of health.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alzheimer's is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. and the most common form of dementia. Though there is still much left to be discovered about cognitive decline and aging, every healthy step toward decreasing our risk is worth taking.
AdventHealth Provides Whole-Person Memory Care
If you or a loved one are facing cognitive challenges and concerned about your dementia risk, we’re here for you. Learn more about how AdventHealth can support you through every age and stage of life through your local network of care.