une 2014 is the first-ever Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, an ideal time for all of us to take stock of whether our daily routines are enhancing or degrading the health of the all-important organ sitting between our ears.
While nothing can prevent or cure Alzheimer’s, adhering to these six habits can lead to better overall brain health:
Healthy body, healthy brain: Diabetes, heart disease—even poor gum health– have all been shown to increase a person’s risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. Conversely, individuals who exercise on a regular basis, consume diets that are rich in fruit, vegetables, lean protein and healthy fats, and engage in proper mouth hygiene practices often experience a lower risk for developing Alzheimer’s in their later years.
Good sleep hygiene: A recent study from the University of California, San Francisco found that older men who didn’t get enough high-quality sleep—woke up multiple times during the night, couldn’t fall back asleep, etc.—experienced cognitive issues equivalent to the effect of an additional five years of brain aging. Fitful sleepers had greater trouble planning, making decisions and were more likely to encounter issues with abstract thinking.
Build a buffer against dementia: Cognitive reserve describes the mechanism by which a person’s mind helps compensate for damage to their brain. The term has recently become a buzzword among health care professionals because research indicates that people who have larger amounts of cognitive reserve are less likely to exhibit the classic signs of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia—short term memory loss, difficulty multitasking, etc.—even if their brain scans show mental damage. This is because cognitive reserve effectively makes the mind stronger and more nimble, enabling it to come up with ways to compensate for disease-related loss of functioning.
Fancy training programs not required: Building a cognitive reserve buffer doesn’t require a bunch of fancy mental puzzles and exercises—though such activities can help. Rather, the key to constructing cognitive reserve lies in seeking out novel activities and experiences in your everyday life. For example, Shlomo Breznitz, Ph.D., co-author of Maximum Brainpower: Challenging the Brain for Health and Wisdom, says even simple tasks—using your non-dominant hand while eating, taking an alternate route to work—can strengthen your cognitive reserve. Discover six additional Ways to Boost Brainpower.
Stress management is essential: Studies have shown that individuals who experience high levels of stress in middle age have a greater risk of developing dementia, even decades later. Cortisol and other hormones released during the stress response can contribute to brain inflammation and can damage the hippocampus—the part of the brain responsible for memory formation.
The benefits of social support: Maintaining strong social connections with friends and family throughout life is widely-regarded as an ideal buffer against a host of ailments—both physical and mental. Indeed, new research has even outlined the Deadly Consequences of Loneliness.