Age Smart

Genetics may be out of your hands, but lifestyle isn’t. You can protect your brain health and defend against dementia now and into your golden years.

Did you know that your experiences literally shape your brain? Compared to those of animals, the human brain comes into the world under-developed. Variables like diet, socialisation and stimulation influence its architecture. Throughout life - and especially in the first few years - your brain is constantly making new connections, linking experiences and ideas into an incredible matrix that shapes your life just as your life shapes it. 

The brain is remarkable in ways that we often take for granted until we are faced with its limitations and decline. We all have those so-called ‘senior moments’ from time to time, but declining brain health can be a lot more serious. Memory lapses and cognitive struggles that begin to affect your daily life could be an early sign of dementia. The good news is that research has shown conclusively how lifestyle choices can safeguard our brain health as we age.  

Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is the most common form of dementia. Studies from the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell’s Women’s Brain Initiative in New York show that only around 1 % of the population develops Alzheimer’s disease because of a genetic mutation, and that over a third of all cases may be preventable by leading a healthy lifestyle. 

The Dreaded ‘D’

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines dementia as “an umbrella term for several diseases affecting memory, other cognitive abilities and behaviour that interfere significantly with a person’s ability to maintain their activities of daily living”.

For various reasons - including longer life expectancy - the incidence of dementia is increasing around the world. There are currently some 50 million people with dementia worldwide, with South Africans making up over two million of them, according to a 2011 census

As the WHO explains: “Although age is the strongest known risk factor for dementia, it is not a normal part of ageing.” The choices you make in terms of relationships, intellectual stimulation, hobbies, diet, exercise and environment can all contribute to delaying, slowing, and even staving off cognitive decline. This means that better brain health is  - to a significant degree - up to you…

With this in mind, here are some evidence-based best practices for healthy ageing, boosting brain health, and reducing your risk of dementia:

Get Physical

The ‘heart-healthy’ advice that is so well established in medical science also applies to brain health. We know that regular aerobic exercise is good for cardiovascular health and weight control, and now we know that our brains will thank us for getting (and staying) fit too. 

Brain Food

According to neuroscientist Dr Lisa Mosconi of Weill Cornell’s Women’s Brain Initiative, “Of all the organs in our body, the brain is the one most easily damaged by a poor diet. From its very architecture to its ability to perform, everything in the brain calls out for the proper food.”

Doctors recommend following a brain-friendly Mediterranean diet comprising plenty of vegetables, healthy fats, whole grains and fruit, while avoiding refined, processed and sugary foods, as well as saturated fats. 

“When we eat a fatty, sugary meal and experience symptoms like sluggishness, brain fog or drowsiness, what many of us don’t realise is that these symptoms originate not in the stomach but in the brain. The latest research, including my own work, indicates that a poor diet causes the loss of key structural and functional elements in the brain, with an aggressively higher vulnerability to brain ageing and dementia,” says Mosconi.

Keep it Fresh

The link between experience and brain health means that we want to keep stimulating our brains, learning and creating novel neurological pathways and connections in the brain throughout our lives. We can do this by changing up our routines, learning new skills, and keeping socially active. It is also a good idea to take on new challenges, like learning chess, joining a painting class, or experimenting with the kinds of brain agility challenges you can find in memory game apps. 

Even for patients who already have dementia, “The recommendation is to do cognitive stimulation activities for 45 minutes, twice a day.” This is according to Claudia Andrews, an occupational therapist for Livewell, a provider of specialist dementia care residential facilities. 

The key is to keep it fresh. Suduko is great until it becomes routine and no longer presents a challenge. Andrews plays a hands-on role with the residents of dementia care facilities every day, and a significant part of her job involves devising and supervising activities for them. She says that novelty should be the focus in terms of sensory activities, and that these needn’t cost a thing. Stargazing, gardening, sketching, singing, listening to music and reading are all low-to-zero cost options.

Chronic Inflammation

There is an increasing body of medical research suggesting that chronic inflammation may be a risk factor for dementia – another good reason to manage your stress and anxiety, which are both linked to inflammation.

There are also nutrients and supplements that can help manage or reduce inflammation. Dr Mosconi’s favourites are aloe vera juice and chlorophyll. 

She writes: “Aloe vera is nature's best hydrator – extracted from the leaf of the aloe vera plant, which contains about 99 % water and over 200 active components including vitamins, minerals, enzymes and fatty acids. This juice has well-established anti-inflammatory as well as hydrating properties. Liquid chlorophyll is [an] ancient remedy used to heal wounds, build new red blood cells, and improve blood oxygenation. I drink both mixed with water first thing in the morning.”

Foster Friendships

Last but not least, staying social is highly recommended for brain health. Research shows that we must work to maintain relationships with our close friends and family, and that we need to keep creating new relationships throughout our lives. Volume is important, but depth even more so: cultivate authentic and meaningful friendships that allow you to talk about your life and feelings, and then find ways to bring people together. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

As head of healthcare at Livewell, Maritza Muller works closely with the nursing staff responsible for the care of residents. She is passionate about and devoted to conscious, compassionate and holistic dementia care for all.