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Things to do now for a healthy brain later

November 06, 2023 | Heather Shannon
a group of friends playing cards outside at a table covered with a tablecloth; social activity and games can keep your brain healthy says uci health neuropsychologist hayley kristinsson
Maintaining social connections has a positive effect on brain health, says UCI Health neuropsychologist Hayley B. Kristinsson.

Information about ways to keep our brains sharp through the aging process is everywhere.

While some tactics are supported by research, the benefits of others are a little more questionable.

Either way, UCI Health Memory Disorder Services neuropsychologist Hayley B. Kristinsson, PsyD, cautions that there is no proven way of preventing Alzheimer’s disease or any other type of dementia.

“We can reduce the risk, but we cannot eliminate all risk through lifestyle changes,” she says.

“But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t engage in activities like brain games. Such behaviors throughout the lifespan are beneficial to brain health.”

Here are her recommendations.

Exercise regularly

Research has shown that physical activity increases the size of the hippocampus. This region of the brain, which is critical for learning and memory, naturally shrinks as one ages.

People who are active in their 40s have a lower risk for developing even mild cognitive impairment later in life.

Kristinsson notes that people who exercise regularly perform better on cognitive tests that measure attention, memory and processing speed. Another bonus: exercise benefits both cardiovascular and cerebrovascular health.

“What is good for the heart is good for the brain,” she says.

The American Heart Association and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend that adults over age 18 perform muscle-strengthening exercises twice weekly, moderate aerobic activity at least 150 minutes a week, and vigorous aerobic activity for at least 75 minutes a week.

Eat a healthy diet

While diet alone cannot prevent Alzheimer’s disease, its link to brain health is well-documented.

Kristinsson suggests the MIND diet, short for Mediterranean-DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. The plan, which combines elements of the Mediterranean diet and DASH — or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension — diet is based on extensive research into foods and nutrients that have positive as well as negative effects on the brain.

Beneficial foods include green leafy vegetables, whole grains, berries, fish and nuts. Harmful foods include red meat, butter and cheese.

“Heart health is strongly linked to brain health, so it is important to eat a heart-healthy diet to promote healthy brain aging,” she says.

Manage modifiable risk factors

Some risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease are impossible to change.

The single greatest one, says Kristinsson, is age. The risk of developing the disease after age 65 doubles about every five years.

Other unmodifiable risk factors include having Down syndrome, or the apolipoprotein E4 gene, a prior history of traumatic brain injury or having a parent or sibling with the disease.

Risk factors we can modify include:

Kristinsson cautions that these factors only indirectly affect a person’s risk for Alzheimer's disease.

“Smoking may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, which leads to an increased risk of dementia,” she cites as an example. “This does not mean that smoking has a direct impact on the plaques and tangles in the brain that are associated with Alzheimer’s.”

Other risk factors for Alzheimer’s being studied are alcohol abuse, depression, environmental toxins (e.g., air pollution) and hospitalization for acute care or critical illness.

Protect mental health and social connections

“We are innately social beings,” Kristinsson says. “The field of social neuroscience has shown us that social engagement can affect brain health.”

Research also shows that people who are socially isolated and lonely display more negative changes in brain health, including declines in cognition. By contrast, social connections decrease loneliness and isolation, fostering a sense of closeness to others.

Put simply, she says, “Social activity is good for your mood!”

Similarly, depression can directly affect cognitive function. Kristinsson says she frequently sees patients who have memory issues along with depression. She recommends addressing any symptoms of anxiety and depression with a therapist or psychiatrist before those feelings become more serious.

Cognitive exercises

Research is mixed on whether brain games help prevent dementia, but Kristinsson says that’s no reason not to do them.

“The key appears to be stimulating your brain to work in ways it is not accustomed to, such as learning a new language or learning to play an instrument.”

She tells her patients to choose activities they enjoy that are also mentally challenging, but not so difficult as to be discouraging. Similarly, if a game or activity is too easy, it’s not really stimulating your brain in beneficial ways.

Whether you choose computerized games, reading, crossword puzzles or workbooks, the key is to find things that challenge you to think in new ways while also providing enjoyment.

Get quality sleep

Sleep and brain health go hand in hand, Kristinsson says. In fact, problems with sleep can increase the risk of developing dementia.

That is because insufficient or disrupted sleep can spur neurological changes, including:

  • Thinning of the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain’s surface
  • Shrinking the hippocampus
  • Decreasing production of new neurons
  • Disrupting communication between different brain regions
  • Increasing ventricle size, which can compress or destroy brain tissue

She recommends establishing a regular sleep routine now, aiming for 7 to 8 hours every night.

If you struggle with sleep, mindfulness and relaxation strategies can help. You may also want to consult a sleep specialist for an evaluation and treatment.

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