Keeping your brain sharp as you age: Things you can do to lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease
It is accepted by many people that a decline in mental alertness, attention, and memory is just an unfortunate part of getting old. And it is true, that as we age our cognitive function goes down. In fact, findings suggest that the brain reaches its peak performance at 16 to 25 years old. Of course, in worst case scenarios, aging and a loss of brain function can mean the onset of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. However, we are not completely helpless and destined to accept our fate! There are lifestyle factors we can control to help preserve our brain function and keep our minds sharp.
Just how if we stop exercising our muscles, we lose strength, we lose fitness, and “feel rusty”. Our brains are no different. The Alzheimer’s Society back this up, saying that keeping your mind active can reduce the risk of dementia.
We have seen the popularity of “brain training” games and apps, that are meant to improve your memory, attention, and logic, through repetition and mental challenges. These have been shown to improve cognitive function, so are a good way of “exercising” your brain. Research showed that training with brain exercises improved memory for people of all ages, including older people. There are also findings that showed that brain training can have benefits even after the first signs of dementia have already begun.
Practice and Repetition
When the brain learns something new, and when it practices it, it forms stronger neural pathways. This is why you become “better”, and it becomes easier to do things that we practice and repeat more often. And this explains how things can get committed to permanent memory – stronger neural pathways from the brain are formed. So, we can see that to keep our brain “in shape”, it makes sense to continue to be challenging ourselves to learn new things. And furthermore, to practice what we learn through repetition.
The brain needs new experiences and challenges to maintain brain cell production.
Research showed that learning new skills that are challenging and mentally stimulating lead to improved memory function in older people.
However, as we reach adulthood and onwards, we become less and less open to learning new things. After already spending the first part of our lives rapidly learning many new things, i.e. the basic lifestyle skills for survival, we find it less and less necessary to continue learning beyond what is essential for us to live.
In a sense, we become lazy when it comes to continuing to challenge our brains as we move beyond adulthood. Therefore, the brain begins to slow down, and we begin to lose brain cells.
Advances in technology only make this worse. Our brains become lazy and get “rusty” through a lack of use, as we rely more and more on technology to complete tasks, so no longer requiring much brain usage. For example, arithmetic, memorising things like birthdays and phones numbers, and remembering directions.
Even “brain training” games and apps might not live up to their expectations of reversing cognitive decline. Once a pattern in the games is recognised by the brain, it fails to provide the same mental stimulus.
Physical Exercise and Other Lifestyle Factors
There is a large amount of evidence showing that physical exercise helps the brain, and it can lower your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The evidence shows that exercise helps with cognitive function, prevents memory loss, and can help prevent cognitive decline as we age. Exercise can involve something as simple as going for walks.
A quote from the Alzheimer’s Society stated that keeping the body and brain active across life can “go some way to reducing the risk”.
Exercise like dancing can be sociable, and learning and memorising dance steps and routines activate neural pathways to help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Learning new languages can also be a good way to keep the brain sharp, and this can also be sociable.
Keeping up with sociable activities is important for maintaining brain health, as loneliness seems to be a big factor in the cause of a loss of cognitive function. Laughing actually appears to help with cognitive function, as it means our brains are engaged.
Alzheimer’s disease causes inflammation and prevents glucose from reaching the brain. By addressing these issues, a lot of symptoms of Alzheimer’s can be relieved.
Reducing sugar intake, not smoking, and reducing toxins in the diet, can all help to reduce the chances of the onset of dementia.
Fasting has been shown to reduce inflammation. An example of this might be “intermittent fasting”, which popularly entails only eating during an 8 hour window, e.g. from 12pm to 8pm.
Eating a lower carbohydrate diet, in which the body uses ketones rather than sugar for energy, has been shown to reduce the risks of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
A diet that can have many health benefits, similar to a ketogenic diet, is a Mediterranean diet. This entails reducing sugar intake, and avoiding toxins. A Mediterranean diet has been shown to improve cognitive function and has other benefits. It involves eating lots of fruit and vegetables, organic free-range meat and poultry, olive oil, limited alcohol, and lots of water.
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Baltes, P. et al. (1999), Lifespan Psychology: Theory and Application to Intellectual Functioning.Annual Review of Psychology 50: 471-507
Belleville, S. (2008), Cognitive training for persons with mild cognitive impairment, International Psychogeriatrics, 20: 57-66
Willis, S.L. et al. (2006), Long-term Effects of Cognitive Training on Everyday Functional Operations in Older Adults. JAMA, 296(23), 2805-2814
Schmiedek, F. et al. (2010), Hundred days of cognitive training enhance broad cognitive abilities in adulthood: findings from the COGITO study. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience: 2(27), 1-10