Studies show that certain lifestyle factors, like a healthy diet and exercise, can help prevent some cases of dementia. Looking for ways to protect your brain health? Make these lifestyle changes part of your New Year’s resolution list.
As the holiday season approaches in this unusual year, though we may be more isolated, this may mean more time to devote to bettering our cognitive or physical health. Studies have shown that both brain exercise and physical exercise can be effective in boosting cognitive function — and to combating the progression of Alzheimer’s. This year, scientists identified 12 risk factors that contribute to 40 percent of all dementia cases worldwide. To help you build brain health into your daily routine, we’ve put together five New Year’s resolution suggestions for better mental and cognitive health in the new year.
1. Incorporate Brain Games Into Your Daily Routine
Dr. Majid Fotuhi recommends playing brain games that require you to “think fast, solve problems fast, or respond fast.” He told Being Patient, “There’s a part of your brain in front that’s important for attention, concentration, and there’s a part of the brain on the side that’s important for memory. You can work out these different brain areas just like you can work out different muscles.” According to Fotuhi, it is important to continue challenging your brain, especially during times of isolation. Whether it be completing a daily crossword puzzle, playing cards or board games, or learning a new word every day — these small habits will help to stimulate your brain and give it the “workout” it deserves. There are many brain game books designed to help you with executive functions, working memory, and processing speed: such as, “399 Games, Puzzles & Trivia Challenges Specifically Designed to Keep Your Brain Young” by Nancy Linde.
2. Exercise Twice a Week
Exercising more is a classic addition to New Year’s Resolutions lists — but did you know it’s one of the best ways to boost your memory and protect your brain health? Exercise promotes cardiovascular health, improves blood flow to the brain, lowers stress hormones, and reduces inflammation, all of which are essential to cognitive functioning, according to neuropsychologist Dr. Aaron Bonner-Jackson of the Cleveland Clinic. He states that physical exercise is also capable of leading to positive physical changes in the brain, and also promotes neuroplasticity in the hippocampus — a very important area of the brain for memory. Don’t be discouraged by the idea of beginning to exercise more, because every effort helps! The type of exercise you choose is not as important as how regularly you do it. If aerobic exercise is too high impact, set a goal for yourself to walk briskly for about an hour at least twice a week.
3. Take a Mindful ‘Awe Walk’
Though regular walking itself is already credited to protect the brain, tuning into your surroundings during your walk has been found to offer even more mental health benefits. A recent study by researchers at the UC San Francisco Memory and Aging Center and the Global Brain Health Institute encouraged participants to take short ‘awe’ walks weekly, in which they focused on the environment around them with greater detail than usual. They reported elevated feelings of awe and joy during these walks, and less stress on a daily basis. As feelings of stress may already be amplified during long periods of quarantine, make time to focus on and appreciate the world around you in addition to walking for exercise. Your mental wellbeing will thank you for it! As Virginia Sturm, an author of the study and associate professor of neurology at the UC San Francisco, put it: “A little more joy and a little more connectedness with the world around us is something all of us could use these days.”
4. Consider a Plant-Based Diet (or Eat More Vegetables)
Better eating is another frequent New Year’s resolution pledge — but here’s an extra reason to get you motivated: Two recent studies, one from the National Institute of Aging, and one from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA), have revealed much about the great potential benefits of diet in regard to preventing Alzheimer’s. Two recommended diets for brain health are the MIND Diet and The Canadian Brain Health Food Guide, both of which prioritize giving your brain the nutrients it needs, most of which are mainly found in plant-based foods. Researchers at the Loma Linda University of Health found that eating a whole-food, plant-based diet — which excludes meat, dairy, eggs, and all processed foods entirely — can reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s by 53 percent. Similarly, researchers at Rush University in Chicago and the Tufts Human Nutrition Research Center in Boston found that when older adults ate at least one serving of leafy greens (such as spinach or kale) they reported slower age-related cognitive decline. If you can’t commit to an entirely plant-based or vegan diet, try to incorporate an abundance of vegetables and whole foods into your diet daily.
5. Help an Older Loved One With Their Cognitive Health Too: Make Time to Reminisce With Family
Dr. Eric B. Larson, a senior investigator at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute, recently wrote for Being Patient about how helpful it can be for older adults to engage in the act of reminiscing about old times. You may notice while speaking to a loved one with dementia that older memories seem to stick with them more than recent ones. Larson states that memory centers in the hippocampus are likely responsible for holding onto memories from so long ago, and told Being Patient that, “We should strive to treasure the miraculous ability of the brain to hold onto the past as well as it does.” Older adults with Alzheimer’s may delight in sharing these memories with you, and the social interaction and discussion between you two while doing so can only help your loved one. Consider trying an at-home version of Reminiscence Therapy by calling an old friend once a week or reaching out to family members to discuss times past.