According to the authors of They Myth of Alzheimer’s1, Alzheimer’s is not a disease but rather a conglomeration of debilitating effects that can occur during aging. They offer a prescription for successful aging across the life span. This blog post cannot do their prescription justice, but can only hit the main points.
They go into a good deal of detail about diet. Perhaps the best way to summarize their recommendations is to say what is good for the heart is good for the brain. So dietary recommendations for the heart also pertain to the brain. The same can be said for exercise. Exercise benefits both the heart and the brain.
Keeping stress to a minimum is another recommendation. Of course, stress is a part of modern life, so it is real and needs to be addressed. Physical exercise reduces stress. Walking, particularly in nature, is beneficial (see the Healthymemory Blog posts “Taking Advantage of Nature to Build a Healthy Memory,” “Restoring Attentional Resources,” and “More on Restoring Attentional Resources”). Yoga and Tai Chi are helpful, as are most types of meditation (See Healthymemory Blog posts, “Change Your Brain by Transforming Your Mind,” “Does Meditation Promote a Healthy Memory?” “Costly Gadgets or Software Are Not Required for a Healthy Memory,” “The Relaxation Response,”, and “Intensive Meditation Training Increases the Ability to Sustain Attention.” ). Avoiding individuals who are annoying or argumentative can also be helpful in reducing stress.
Remember that autopsies of people who showed no indication of cognitive decline revealed the same amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles that would confirm a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. The most common explanation for these individuals is that they had built up cognitive reserves during their lifetime. The brain can use this reserve capacity to respond to damage that might occur from aging. These are the possible mechanisms offered by the authors.
“Building a higher synaptic volume of connections between neurons
Increasing cerebral blood flow
Developing resistance to the neurotoxic effects of excess levels of hormones like cortisol and other glucocorticoids
Promoting resistance against the depletion of neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine and dopamine, which occur with age
Recruiting other brain regions to perform tasks
Increasing cerebral flow and metabolism and conferring greater resistance to the neurotoxic effects of environmental toxins”2
The obvious question is how to accomplish this. Formal education is one answer. The higher the level of education, the greater the resistance to Alzheimer’s. Fortunately, returning to school is not required. Consider the following list of helpful activities: learning a new language, learning to play an instrument, playing board and card games, engaging in intellectually stimulating conversations, reading intellectually challenging books, picking up a new skill, keeping a notebook, or starting an online blog. This list is by no means exhaustive, but you should get the idea.
Building and maintaining social relationships is also beneficial to a healthy mind. The authors provide the following list of psychosocial benefits:
“Availability of emotional support
A source of information, guidance, and advice, diversion from the stresses of life and the day-to-day travails of aging
A sense of coherence, purpose, usefulness, and meaning
An increased propensity to take care of yourself and seek out professionl help
A sense of intimacy and belonging
A belief in something beyond oneself”3
Depending on the job and profession, staying employed can also be beneficial. Research has found that countries with lower retirement ages also have lower ages for the onset of dementia (See the following Healthymemory Blog Posts, “Could the AARP Be Telling Us Not to Retire,” “Passing 65,” “Can Early Retirement Lead to Memory Decline,” and “Aging and Productivity.”). Retirement is not necessarily bad, provided that post-retirement activities provide the same mental and social stimulation that was provided in the workplace.
The importance of an optimistic or positive outlook is also important (See the Healthymemory Blog Post, “Positive Psychology”).
In short, the selection of the appropriate activities you pursue during your lifetime is the best means of reducing the risk of dementia. And you are never to old to start.