Have a Family History of Dementia or Alzheimer's? Here's How to Protect Your Brain as You Age
Having a family history of a brain disease like Alzheimer's or dementia can feel a bit scary, especially if you've witnessed a loved one develop symptoms and progress through the disease. Like other health concerns, a family history of Alzheimer's or dementia naturally puts you at a higher risk of developing one of these conditions. But it's just one risk factor, meaning just because your grandmother (or parent or sibling) had dementia, it's not all doom and gloom. The good news is there's a lot you can do to reduce your chances of developing these diseases—and it's never too early to start. Lifestyle factors like what you eat, your exercise habits, alcohol consumption and sleep habits, have been shown to play a role in risk of dementia and Alzheimer's, independent of family history.
It's never too early (or too late!) to start taking care of your brain (and body), so whether you're 25 or 60, if you have a family history of either dementia or Alzheimer's disease, start implementing these lifestyle tips today to protect your brain.
1. Eat a Mediterranean-style diet
The Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, fish, olive oil and other healthy fats, and limits red and processed meats, added sugars and processed foods, has been shown to both slow the progression of Alzheimer's and prevent it. "In one study of 116 cognitively normal individuals, those that followed the Mediterranean diet developed thicker cortical brain regions versus the control group," notes Sanjiv Lakhia, DO, Board Certified Physiatrist with expertise in Brain and Spine Rehab.
The components of the Mediterranean diet are packed with nutrients that have been shown to boost brain health—from antioxidants in fruits and vegetables to healthy fats in nuts, seeds, and fish. Dr Ong Kee Leong, recommends consuming at least 1,000 mg of omega-3's (specifically, DHA) every day. "Research clearly links higher DHA levels with reduced risk, not only for Alzheimer's disease but for other forms of dementia as well," says Dr. Leong. Fatty fish—a major component of the Mediterranean diet—is one of the best food sources of DHA.
2. Get regular exercise
As if there aren't already enough reasons to move your body regularly, here's another: it's really good for your brain. Cardiovascular exercise has been shown to ward off development of dementia and Alzheimers as well as slow progression of these diseases among those that have shown early signs. "Aerobic exercise actually turns on the DNA in your genome that codes for the production of BDNF, basically the brain's growth hormone," says Dr. Leong.
"Interestingly, weight or resistance training seems to offer potential benefits in addition those seen from cardiovascular exercise," notes Nate Bergman, DO, MBA, co-developer of the Brain Health Program at Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine. Both body weight exercises like pushups and squats as well as weight training counts, so you don't need an expensive gym membership to reap the benefits—doing a handful of exercises a couple of times per week is likely all you need.
"Training your balance and coordination may also be helpful to the brain in ways we didn't realize until recently. It seems to send signals to the brain that calm down the nervous system and how the brain integrates information that aerobics and strength training don't," adds Dr. Bergman. He recommends trying "yoga, qi gong, tai chi, karate, kung fu and dance to improve balance."
The key with exercise is to choose forms you enjoy so you'll actually stick to it, and to include a mix of aerobic, strength and balance work to reap the most benefits.
3. Make sleep a priority
Not surprisingly sleep plays an important role in your brain health as you age. Lack of sleep not only can affect your daily function, but it may increase your risk for dementia. "Good sleep protects your brain by cleaning and refreshing the components," says Dr. Bergman.
Both quantity and quality matter, too. One study found that getting less than 6 hours of sleep per night was associated with reduced cognitive function and increased risk for Alzheimer's disease. Whereas "poor sleep quality leads to deficits in synaptic plasticity and memory processes, which adversely affect cognition and memory," says Dr. Rashmi Byakodi.
"The two most common sleep problems are insomnia and sleep apnea. People with one of both of these conditions do not click through all the various stages of sleep, often missing critical stages such as deep and REM sleep. Full sleep cycles are necessary to reduce inflammation and pruning of brain cells related to memory (sort of like priming the hedges on a bush)," adds Dr. Bergman.
Aim to get seven to nine hours of quality sleep per night. If you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, try creating a simple bedtime routine to help your brain prepare for sleep, stop using any sort of technology with blue light (TV, phone, computer, etc.) an hour before bedtime and avoid caffeine later in the day. If you're still waking up exhausted after a full night of sleep, talk to your doctor about getting tested for sleep apnea.
4. Keep your brain engaged
You may have heard that doing crossword puzzles is good for the aging brain, and it's true! "With aging, alteration occurs in various regions of the brain, like the prefrontal cortex, medial temporal lobe, hippocampus and cerebellum. These changes are linked to Alzheimer's disease and dementia. It leads to impairment in cognitive functions like speed and executive functions and also short-term and long-term memory loss," says Dr. Byakodi. It turns out that brain games—like crossword puzzles—prevent these age-related changes and improves cognitive function.
"Another study showed that people who frequently participate in brain activities display greater grey matter in the brain and exhibit higher cognitive scores," adds Byakodi. Both of these things are connected to the prevention of Alzheimer's disease and better cognitive function as we age.
Crosswords not your thing? Don't stress. Reading, learning a new skill or hobby, taking a class or anything that stimulates your brain is beneficial.
Meditation isn't just for yogis—and the benefits expand far beyond relaxation (though, that's helpful, too!). "Meditation is considered non-pharmacological therapy aimed to prevent cognitive decline in older adults," says Byakodi. Research has shown that meditation, especially when paired with other lifestyle factors like a healthy diet and exercise, may ward off the development of Alzheimer's disease.
"Mindful meditation, when practiced regularly, strengthens the connections between areas of the brain associated with attention and concentration. It also improves focus by increasing neuroplasticity of your brain, " says Byakodi.
If the idea of sitting with your legs crossed and your eyes closed while attempting to quiet your brain feels overwhelming or even anxiety-inducing, know that meditation can be done in a variety of different ways. Start with guided meditation of just a couple of minutes per day using one of the many apps available such as Stop.Breathe.Think. It may even promote better sleep—a double whammy for a healthy brain.
6. Quit smoking and watch the booze
Smoking puts you at an increased risk for almost every health concern, including brain-related diseases. "Smoking contributes to impaired blood flow and increasing cerebral oxidative stress, promoting Alzheimer's disease-related brain pathology," says Dr. Lakhia.
When it comes to alcohol, the research is mixed, but one drink per day is probably a safe amount. One study showed that both alcohol abstainers and those that had two or more drinks per day were at increased risk for dementia and cognitive decline. Another study showed that heavy drinkers—defined as eight or more drinks per week—were at significantly higher risk for Alzheimer's disease than both abstainers and moderate drinkers (one to seven drinks per week). If you don't drink, there's probably no benefit in starting, but if you do, keep it to one drink per day, max (and red wine may be your best choice!).
Other important health considerations
The brain is quite complex and is influenced by many factors both in and out of our control. Beyond the lifestyle choices above, your overall health can play a role in the health of your brain. "Keep your blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol under control. All three are related to forms of dementia," notes Dr. Leong. The good news is, all of the lifestyle factors noted above will help with these things, too. But if lifestyle modifications aren't enough, discuss medication options with your doctor.
Many of the things we do to take care of our body are also good for our brain. To reduce your risk of age-related brain disease, it's all about what you do consistently over time, so start making small changes today. Every healthy behavior adds up!