In hopes of staving off cognitive decline, I’ve been refreshing my French with the help of the free online language courses on DuoLingo. Next up: brushing up on my minimal Italian (one college semester) in preparation for our trip to Sicily, Milan and Florence in October.Younger readers may think this is an issue that only affects their parents or grandparents. Not so fast: apparently the seeds of dementia can be sewn in our 30’s, 40’s and 50’s — up to three decades before the disease appears full-blown. Yowza.
Nearly two-thirds of Alzheimer’s sufferers are women. But the good news is that there’s a lot we can do to protect ourselves – at every age. Reducing inflammation, insulin resistance, blood sugar, high LDL cholesterol and vascular problems lowers our risk, and current research now focuses as much on causes as on cures.
The Big Three: Eating, Exercise and Engagement.
The Mediterranean Diet won’t just keep you slim; it’s literally brain food. Eating veggies, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry and olive oil boosts brain health. And don’t forget the wine: the resveratrol in red wine has many benefits.
- Protects the lining of our arteries so blood can flow freely
- Improves the body’s ability to repair damage caused by free radicals, which helps prevent premature aging of cells
- Blocks the production of inflammatory agents
What to avoid? Sugar. Too much can lead to obesity and diabetes, both of which increase the risk of dementia. So swap that margarita for cabernet! And watch your cholesterol: high levels can cause plaque buildup in blood vessels and keep blood from effectively reaching all parts of your brain.
It’s as good for your brain as it is for your butt.
- Aerobic exercise builds up grey matter in the cerebral cortex (where memories live), releases chemicals thought to affect learning and memory, and delivers oxygen to your brain.
- Regular exercise sharpens focus and stimulates nerve cells and blood vessel formation in the hippocampus, another part of the brain associated with memory. Don’t you love the word hippocampus, which sounds like a university for, you know, hippos? (I threw that in to see if you’re paying attention.)
- Studies have shown that strength training improves blood flow to areas of the brain associated with executive function and memory. So pump that iron!
- Stress busters such as yoga help reduce cortisol, the fight-or-flight hormone that can go into overdrive, impairing memory and causing neuron-damaging inflammation.
- Learn something new and keep doing new things (at least an hour each day).
- Spend time socializing; it helps build new brain cells.
- Protect your heart (and not just romantically!) The better it pumps, the more blood can circulate throughout your body, nourishing the neurons and blood vessels in your brain.
- Feeling bored at work or in a social situation? Wiggle your toes — it snaps you back to the moment.
- Hit the sheets for at least seven hours. The slow-wave stage before REM sleep is thought to be the time when cognitive function strengthens and consolidates.
- Take time to relax. It lowers blood pressure to help reduce strain on blood vessels.
Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for my new fitness regimen: lifting several heavy glasses of wine while reading Italian travel guides and researching restaurants. Gotta start someplace, right? Salute e ciao!