Recent research highlights 10 surprising ways to protect your brain.

Iran PressAmerica: 'Dementia' may seem like a gloomy topic but preventing it can be satisfying and, at times, even fun.

Paths to Brain Health

In brief, these 'Terrific Twelve' are 1. Omit alcohol consumption. 2. Avoid head injury. 3. Breathe clean air; stay-in on polluted-air days if possible. 4. Provide access to early-childhood education. 5. Correct mid-life hearing loss. 6. Monitor and reduce high blood pressure. 7. Maintain a healthy weight.  8. Quit smoking; avoid inhaling second-hand smoke. 9. Find help for depression and anxiety. 10. Prevent social isolation by connecting with others. 11. Exercise and stay active. 12. Manage and/or reverse diabetes. These twelve lifestyle factors account for a whopping 40% of dementias.

'Dementia' is a collection of signs and symptoms that includes memory loss; difficulty reasoning, solving problems and learning new things; inappropriate behavior; and difficulty performing many activities of daily living. It is not a disease itself but is caused by an underlying disease such as Alzheimer’s. (Other major causes of dementia include vascular problems, neurodegenerative disorders, and Lewy body dementia.) 'Mild cognitive impairment' (MCI) is a condition involving less severe problems with thinking and remembering. Good news: MCI does not necessarily progress to dementia.

While age is a major risk factor for dementia, dementia is not a normal part of aging, according to the Mayo Clinic. That’s why it is so helpful to realize that we can all make good lifestyle choices right now that can help our mental functioning as we age.

Pleasurable activities that your Brain will love:

In addition to the 12 key prevention measures above, researchers have documented various unusual and fun activities that can keep our brains healthy.  Here are 10 activities that seem to help, according to recent studies. 

1. Sing out. Past research has shown that playing a musical instrument has positive effects on cognitive functioning, especially cognitive flexibility, the ability to switch the mind’s focus from one thought process to another. Now, new research from the University of Helsinki reveals a chorus of benefits from singing. According to the researchers, elderly singers have better cognitive flexibility than non-singers and also experience a mood lift from singing together. In addition, participants in choral groups develop a strong feeling of togetherness as they sing, which can protect them from the mind-sapping effects of loneliness that many people experience as they age.

2. Try sauna bathing. Strangely enough, recent research indicates a strong relationship between Finnish sauna bathing and the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. Why might sauna bathing lower dementia risk? The mechanisms could include the activation of protective proteins by the heat, better cardiovascular functioning, reduced inflammation, better sleep, reduced stress, and increased relaxation. (Warning: The extreme heat would not be healthy for every person. Consult with your doctor.)  

3. Practice tai chi. Tai chi is a slow-motion exercise for self-defense and meditation. Is tai chi more beneficial than other forms of exercise when it comes to preserving mental function? According to the Harvard Health Letter, it is: “In a meta-analysis of 20 studies on tai chi and cognition, tai chi appears to improve executive function—the ability to multitask, manage time, and make decisions—in people without any cognitive decline. In those with mild cognitive impairment, tai chi slowed the progression to dementia more than other types of exercise and improved their cognitive function in a comparable fashion to other types of exercise or cognitive training.”4.  Cultivate a positive attitude toward aging.  

5. Get the flu and/or pneumonia vaccination.  Research in 2020 indicates that getting a flu or pneumonia vaccination, in addition to the obvious benefits, may provide protection against Alzheimer’s disease. Too good to be true? Apparently not.

6. Cultivate positive emotions and optimism. According to this research summary, people who feel enthusiastic and cheerful have less memory decline than others without their positive outlook. These results are in line with studies that show that an optimistic outlook is linked with longer life, better health, and better health habits. On the other hand, repetitive negative thoughts are linked to a higher risk of Alzheimer’s. The contrast between these two studies illustrates the probable link between good mental health and good brain health.

Fortunately, a positive outlook, optimism, and happiness are not innate qualities that some have and others do not. 

7. Add berries, apples, and green tea to your diet. Consuming foods with flavonoids, substances that reduce inflammation, are associated with a reduced risk of dementia. Eating berries and apples, and drinking green tea may have protective benefits against Alzheimer's, says this 2020 study from Tufts.  Happy note: Dark chocolate is also rich in flavonoids. And if you don't care for the taste of green tea...

8. Drink coffee.  Coffee may provide even more than a mood lift and short-term concentration boost. According to a long-term study of 1409 people, moderate coffee drinking (3-5 cups/day) in mid-life reduced the risk of Alzheimer's disease in later life.

9. Get a good night’s sleep. While researchers are still trying to determine the relationship of sleep to the prevention of dementia, many studies report that sleep seems to clear the brain of harmful waste products that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease. 

10. Find a purpose. Finally, find a reason for living, whatever that reason is for you-- giving emotional support to your extended family, volunteering, working at a worthwhile job, engaging in a hobby or creative activity, developing a business that uses your strengths and skills. While the relationship between "purpose" and dementia prevention is still unclear, having a sense of purpose has been linked in research to better mental and physical health, longer life, and less chronic pain and illness.

Takeaways

The research on dementia prevention is still evolving. While some of the activities listed above may seem trivial, they could provide clues to mechanisms underlying better mental health and better brain health. In addition, most are enjoyable in themselves and have numerous health benefits apart from dementia prevention.

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