Avoid the Dirty Dozen Enemies of Brain Health

Related topics: Getting Enough Exercise, Alzheimer's Disease, Eating Right, Fall Prevention, Brain Health, Safety

Neurologist looks at brain scans

At the Alzheimer's Association International Conference this year, a team of experts created quite a stir when they announced that one-third of all cases of dementia could be prevented through lifestyle changes. Said Dr. Lon Schneider, a professor at the Keck School of Medicine of University of Southern California, "There's been a great deal of focus on developing medicines to prevent dementia, including Alzheimer's disease. But we can't lose sight of the real major advances we've already made in treating dementia, including preventive approaches."

It's true that our genes have a lot to do with whether we will develop Alzheimer's disease or other dementia. But this latest research confirms that we can lower our risk by avoiding things that can harm our brains.

Check out this list of lifestyle choices that raise the risk of dementia. Some are no doubt familiar, but others might surprise you:

Enemy #1: Ignoring common health conditions. Brain health is connected intricately with the health of the rest of our body. Many health conditions — such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and even gum disease — raise the risk of dementia. Early detection allows for the most effective management of these diseases, so get the screenings your doctor recommends, take medications as recommended, and make regular healthcare appointments.

Enemy #2: Sitting. Most of us know that exercise is good for our brains. Yet recent studies show that even if we exercise every day, our brain health still can suffer if we then spend most of the rest of the day sitting down. So, follow your doctor's recommendation for an exercise plan that's right for you, and add several other small doses of movement throughout the day. Go for a brief walk. Move around or stand while you watch TV, rather than sitting on the couch. Set a timer and stroll up and down the hall for a minute or two every hour — anything to break up an uninterrupted period of sitting.

Enemy #3: Head injuries. When we think about dementia, we usually think of Alzheimer's disease or stroke as the cause, but in fact, head injuries can cause traumatic brain injuries (TBI) that lead to thinking and memory problems and lifelong disability. To protect yourself, always wear your seatbelt in the car, use a helmet if you cycle, and remove fall hazards from your home, such as throw rugs, items on the stairs, and clutter.

Enemy #4: Smoking. The harmful substances in tobacco smoke raise the risk of dementia. The good news is that if you quit, your risk declines over time until it reaches a level comparable to lifetime nonsmokers. If you're having trouble quitting, ask your doctor about a smoking cessation program. And if you're not a smoker, but live with or spend time with people who are, remember that your risk can be elevated from exposure to secondhand smoke.

Enemy #5: Social isolation. Guess what experts say is just as damaging as smoking? This one might surprise you. Brain imaging shows that loneliness causes a reaction in the same area of the brain as physical pain — and increases damaging inflammation so much that it is as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day! Seniors today are especially vulnerable to social isolation. Gerontologists say that as we age, we should make a plan for continued social engagement right along with our financial planning.

Enemy #6: Drinking too much alcohol. Some studies suggest that moderate alcohol consumption could be somewhat protective of brain health. Scientists are still debating this … but one thing we know for sure is that drinking too much causes shrinkage of certain parts of the brain that are associated with memory and thinking. Overconsumption causes a host of other health problems, as well. If you're having trouble controlling your drinking, talk to your doctor.

Senior man plays chess

Enemy #7: Stress and depression. Over time, stress damages almost every organ of the body — and that includes the brain. You've probably noticed that stress makes it hard to concentrate. Experts say that over time, this effect can be permanent. Depression also is toxic to the brain, raising the level of stress hormones and making it less likely that we'll exercise or eat properly. If you experience a low mood that doesn't pass, or you feel stressed out much of the time, talk to your doctor.

Enemy #8: Untreated hearing loss. Recent studies show that seniors with hearing loss have more than the average age-related shrinking of the brain. Hearing loss affects the brain in several ways: It makes the brain work much harder, causes stress, and leads to social isolation and reduced mental stimulation. Seniors should have their hearing checked regularly, and use hearing aids properly. There may be an adjustment period with these devices, but it's worth it to keep yourself connected with the world.

Enemy #9: Inadequate sleep. Neurologists tell us that getting enough sleep is vital for brain health. While we sleep, our brains clean out harmful toxins, and stockpile memories from the day before. But our busy lives and, lately, our addiction to our smartphones mean that few of us get the recommended 7 – 9 hours! To get better sleep, practice good sleep hygiene with a dark, quiet room. Avoid caffeine in the afternoon, and alcohol near bedtime. Don't bring light-emitting devices to bed. Seek help for sleep apnea, insomnia and other sleep disorders. (This will benefit your sleep partner, as well.)

Enemy #10: Air pollution. Even if you don't smoke, harmful substances can come into the air you breathe, from industrial processes, the exhaust of cars, and even from natural sources such as wildfires or soil erosion. The American Heart Association cautions that people who live in areas with a high level of pollution score lower on thinking and memory tests. Limit your exposure to the outdoors on days with high air pollution levels, improve the air quality in your home, and set your car's fan to recirculate air if you're sitting in traffic.

Enemy #11: Trans fats. Our understanding of healthy and unhealthy fats has evolved over the past few years, but one thing's for sure: Trans fats, those which are artificially produced to be solid at room temperature and are found in fast foods and processed foods, are linked with a host of health problems, including memory loss. Dr. Beatrice A. Golumb of University of California, San Diego, puts it best: "Trans fats increase the shelf life of foods, but they reduce the shelf life of people." Read food labels and avoid this ingredient. Ask for a nutrition information sheet when you're dining out.

Enemy #12: Boredom. "Use it or lose it," say brain health experts. Mental stimulation builds connections in the brain that can delay the onset of dementia. It's never too late to add more interesting activities to our lives that make our brains work a little harder, delight us, and reduce stress. Looking for some ideas? Read "Learn Something New Every Day" in this issue!

Source: IlluminAge Communication Partners; copyright 2017

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