Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are the leading fears among baby boomers, countless of whom have seen their parents’ brain health deteriorate. While many feel paralyzed when considering the possibility of developing an unhealthy brain themselves, much can and must be done to support cognitive health during every step of the aging process.
Since pharmacology does not yet offer a solution to a deteriorating brain, each one of us must act before it is too late. This important subject is addressed by a symposium on Mild Cognitive Impairment in Miami this week.
Studies suggest that four steps to brain health and Alzheimer’s prevention have a good chance of being effective. They are diet, stress management, physical and mental exercise and spiritual fitness. With simple and effective lifestyle choices, it’s entirely possible that each one of us can add years to our brain longevity.
Eating well helps support a healthy brain. The latest research reveals that a modified plant-based, Mediterranean diet, called the MIND diet, may prevent cognitive decline. Conversely, eating in an unhealthy way may lead to memory problems with aging.
Managing stress is critically important as well. Significant research shows that our frenetic, stressful lifestyle causes damage to important brain areas that may lead to Alzheimer’s. While each individual’s stress-management approach can be unique, a variety of mind/body medical techniques, such as yoga, meditation and Tai Chi, are now proven to work wonders. In fact, this promises to be an ever-expanding topic of prevention research.
Exercise is the third factor that contributes to caring for your brain. Simply put, regular physical exercise is an absolute requirement when it comes to a healthy body and, you guessed it, a healthy brain.
Physical exercise should include both cardio and strength training. Beyond that, the definition of exercise should be expanded to cover mental exercise as well. As we age, we need to continue using both body and brain so that they don’t deteriorate.
Finally, spiritual fitness may also contribute to brain health and is a proven defense against Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) and even Alzheimer’s. Spiritual fitness is the combination of attributes of psychological well-being, such as contentment, socialization, and having a purpose or mission in life, combined with spiritual well-being, that includes service to others and the ongoing search for peace of mind. Spiritual fitness contributes directly to your ability to maintain a high level of mental function as you age.
Given the pending Alzheimer’s epidemic (by 2050, the number of victims is expected to triple), the presidential candidates are taking notice as well. Hillary Clinton has taken the lead on this issue, promising to quadruple federal research funding for Alzheimer’s, and we expect other candidates to follow suit.
Nevertheless, it is critical that research dollars not merely be used to fund drug-related studies, but that they be made available to continue fund work on what is now called non-pharma prevention. This is critical because, even though prevention doesn’t make much money for the drug industry, it empowers individuals to take care of their brain.
In fact, the largest study on the prevention of Alzheimer’s recently was completed in Finland , where European governments and private, U.S.-based organizations funded the multiyear FINGER study — Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability — the first large, long-term and methodologically robust study on cognitive function. It tracked more than 1,200 individuals and conclusively showed that lifestyle changes have a direct impact on the ability of our brains to withstand the aging process and even recover from its adverse effects.
Simply put, it’s never too early or too late to start taking care of your brain. For us individually as well as for our government and society, the time to act is now.
Dr. Dharma Khalsa is the medical dof the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation, which he founded in 1993, and a clinical associate professor at the University of New Mexico Medical School’s Department of Internal Medicine and Integrative Medicine. Simran Stuelpnagel is the executive vice president of the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation.