Scientists still don’t know why some people get Alzheimer’s and others can recall facts and memories well into their 90s, but they believe it’s a combination of genetics and environmental risk factors. And while you can’t change your genes, you can control your lifestyle—which, in turn, might keep the genes that encourage Alzheimer’s from triggering.
Researchers from the University of Alberta in Canada found that there are concrete ways people can help influence good brain health. The results of their study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, suggest people might be able to stave off Alzheimer’s through early prevention efforts for people over the age of 55.
“We found different risk factors for stable memory and for rapidly declining memory,” said Peggy McFall, lead author and research associate in the Department of Psychology. “It may be possible to use these factors to improve outcomes for older adults.”
McFall and her team analyzed data from 882 adults between the ages of 53 and 95 using machine learning to track patterns. Adults with a healthy memory were more likely to:
- Be female
- Have a higher education
- Engage in social activities like dinner parties
- Participate in novel cognitive activities like using a computer, learning a second language or doing taxes
For adults ages 55 to 75, healthy memory was also associated with a lower heart rate, higher body mass index, more self-maintenance activities (think: making dinner), and having a live-in companion. Adults over the age of 75 with healthy memories walked faster and were less depressed than their counterparts with poorer memories.
“These modifiable risk and protective factors may be converted to potential intervention targets for the dual purpose of promoting healthy memory aging or preventing or delaying accelerated decline, impairment, and perhaps dementia,” said McFall.
Researchers envision a future that might include encouraging cognitive activities at a doctor’s appointment for people between the ages of 55 and 75 or exercises to improve gait speed for people over the age of 75.
Here are some actionable steps you can take that science says may lower your risk for cognitive problems:
- A healthy diet: The MIND diet, based on the Mediterranean diet, has been shown to not only actually lower a person’s risk of Alzheimer’s, but may also actually slow cognitive decline.
- Exercise: Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki says exercise can lower your risk for dementia by between 30 and 90 percent, depending on the type and intensity of exercise.
- Social engagement: Feeling lonely can increase your risk of dementia by 40 percent, according to a study by Florida State University. People who are married or have close friendships have a 60 percent lower risk of dementia.
- Engage in meaningful activities: Seniors with a strong sense of purpose showed fewer signs of aging, according to one study. For some people, that means continuing to work past their retirement age, but for others, it can be taking care of a pet or spending time with family.
- Sleep: Deep sleep is necessary for the brain to maintain itself and get rid of toxins associated with Alzheimer’s. Those who don’t get deep sleep actually have more signs of Alzheimer’s in the brain, decades before symptoms like memory loss appear.
- Stress: Long-term feelings of stress can actually change the structure of the brain, and it can increase cortisol and inflammation—which is tied to the development of Alzheimer’s. Experts suggest mindfulness-based stress relief exercises for chronically stressed people.