Cognitive decline is one of the major reasons older adults lose their freedom and independence. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), around 50 million people have dementia and, with one new case every three seconds, the number of people with dementia is set to triple by 2050. While there’s currently no treatment that can prevent or cure dementia, researchers have identified some key factors that can help protect your brain health as you age.
Limit your alcohol intake
While having the occasional drink of your favorite type of alcohol is fine, overdoing your alcohol intake can impact your brain health years down the road. In one study, heavy drinkers—defined as more than four drinks per day or 14 per week for men and more than three drinks per day or seven per week for women—had a 22% higher Alzheimer’s risk than the nondrinkers.
While some alcoholic beverages, like red wine for example, are made up of the compound resveratrol that has shown to break down beta-amyloid (abnormal deposits of protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease) in laboratory experiments, experts do not recommend drinking to prevent cognitive decline. To keep your brain sharp, keep an eye on your consumption when you’re having a night out with friends.
A sedentary lifestyle can have a lasting, damaging impact on not just your body, but your brain as well. Get up and move! Even if it’s just a little bit every day, movement is key to reducing your risk of cognitive decline. People who are physically active have reduced risks for cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, and other dementias. Other studies show that regular exercise leads to hippocampus enlargement, the part of the brain involved with memories, and brain tissue in the frontal lobes, the part of the brain involved in executive function, planning and goal setting.
For adults aged 65 years and above, WHO recommends 150 minutes or more of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, or 75 minutes or more of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week (or an equivalent combination of moderate and vigorous activity).
Habits are hard to break, especially ones we’ve held for a long time. If you’ve been a lifelong smoker it can be difficult to give it up, but research shows people who smoke are also at a higher risk of developing all types of dementia and up to a 79% increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Talk to your doctor to discuss ways you can effectively stop smoking.
Have a chess board you haven’t broken out in awhile? Mental stimulation is one of the best ways of keeping your brain strong and healthy. According to one study, chess and bridge are leisure activities that demand working memory and reasoning skills. Older adults who play bridge scored higher on working memory and reasoning measures compared to non players and working crossword puzzles has also been associated with maintained cognition in older adults.
Consider your overall lifestyle
You’re never too old (or young) to take a step back and reflect on your overall lifestyle—how and what you eat, who you spend time with, how much sleep you’re getting, what you stay busy with, and how these various factors can impact your mood and health.
In one thirty-year continuing follow-up study of 2,235 men ages 45-59, dementia rates declined by 60 percent in those who ate a healthy diet, maintained normal weight (BMI of 18-25), limited alcohol intake, did not smoke and walked (or engaged in other active exercises) two or more miles per day. There was also about a 50 percent decline in diabetes and vascular disease and a significant reduction in all-cause mortality.
Even if you don’t hit all of these targets yourself, it’s clear how important lifestyle can impact your brain health. Eat a balanced plant-based diet, move your body, don’t consume too many vices, and get plenty of sleep.
If you’re interested in other ways of staying strong and healthy as you move into your golden years, here are some more tips on how to stay independent as you age.