Building a better brain as we age

One of the worst fears many of us share of getting older is losing our cognitive ability.  Staying physically in shape is important but maintaining mental sharpness and acuity is just as vital.  What a gift it is to be cognitively and socially active participating fully in all aspects of life well into our elderly years. 

Unfortunately, too many of us have been witness to loved ones taking a sharp decline when Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia take over.  The person that we once knew has vanished and been replaced with someone who we no longer recognize or often know how to interact with. 

June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month and now is the time to be informed and enlightened on ways all of us can beat back Alzheimer’s and build a better functioning brain. 

Fortunately, research is now paving the way to providing clues to age-proofing our brains, making them more rebellious against dementia.  David A Bennett, director of the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago, along with about 100 scientists has been searching for ways to treat and prevent a range of common neurodegenerative disorders. 

For almost 25 years Bennett has led two longitudinal investigations – the Religious Orders Study and the Rush Memory and Aging Project – enrolling over 3,200 dementia-free adults from across the United States ranging in age from mid-50’s to their 100’s figuring out why some people stay sharp into old age while others lose their mental faculties as early as their 60’s. All of the volunteers agree to donate their brains after death for the scientists to research.

What the scientists have found so far is that it is rare to grow old with a completely healthy brain.  Just about every single brain they have examined exhibits at least some form of the neuron-killing tangles associated with Alzheimer’s disease and is the most common cause of dementia.  But what also has been found is not all of those with these tangles go on to show signs of the disease begging the question of why some people develop symptoms of Alzheimer’s and others do not? 

What has been discovered is that our brain is the most adaptable of all our organs – it can fight back drawing on its cognitive reserve to stop Alzheimer’s from advancing further with help from us in our day to day living.  We may not have won the genetic lottery of having few if any family members escaping dementia but there are 10 key lifestyle factors that do shape our brain’s health into old age rivaling Alzheimer’s or dementia from rearing its head. 

Here are the 10 factors investigators from the two longitudinal studies have identified in building a better brain each one of us can do to reduce the risk of losing cognition and developing Alzheimer’s disease:

1.      Get a good education as education can secure brain health as we age.  Beginning in childhood and throughout our adult lives learning a second language, taking music or art lessons or learning a new skill can all help to avoid emotional and mental neglect.

2.      Engage in regular cognitive and physical activity.

3.      Strengthen and maintain social ties

4.      Get our and explore new things – travel, do something you’ve never done before that tests your mental skills.

5.      Relax and be happy.  Find something humorous each day to laugh about.

6.      Avoid people who are downers, especially close family members. 

7.      Be conscientious and diligent.

8.      Spend time engaged in activities that are meaningful and goal-oriented.

9.      Be heart-healthy – what’s good for the heart is good for the brain.

10.  Eat a MIND diet, with fresh fruit, vegetables, and fish.

Following the 10 factors may or may not preserve your brain totally but it’s better to at least try out these suggestions than to test fate and fall into the hands of Alzheimer’s.