The statistics regarding women and Alzheimer’s are sobering. Two-thirds of the five million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease are women, and women with memory problems are more likely than men to suffer additional memory decline over time. The reasons for women’s increased susceptibility are not fully clear, but evidence suggests it is not simply because women often outlive men and are therefore more likely to be diagnosed with problems associated with advanced age. Some evidence suggests that the same genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s impacts women more than men, while other evidence suggests that estrogen may play a role. Still other reasons are being actively investigated.
Although there is a strong hereditary risk for early-onset Alzheimer’s (in which symptoms develop prior to age 65), there is not a strong hereditary risk for most cases of late-onset Alzheimer’s (in which symptoms develop after age 65). 96% of all cases of Alzheimer’s are late-onset, and lifestyle factors under our direct control may significantly minimize the risk of developing it.
Fortunately, an abundance of research shows that women can build what I refer to as a “High Octane Brain” by engaging in specific, science-backed behaviors that help build healthier brain tissue, reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, and improve memory and thinking skills. A High Octane Brain is also linked to improved mood, quality of life, and cardiovascular health. Here are some tips to get started.
1. Make brain health a priority
Although we are only beginning to understand the complexity of the brain, it is clear that it functions as the master control center of our body. Not only does this jello-like, three-pound organ give rise to our thinking skills, but it also directs movement, senses, emotions, and most bodily functions. Brain health is foundational to success in all aspects of life, and directly impacts our performance at work, with family, and in nearly all other activities. Prioritizing brain health becomes exciting when we recognize its pivotal role in all that we do and all that we are.
2. Make exercise part of your routine
The cornerstone of great brain health is heart-pumping cardiovascular/aerobic exercise. A 2014 study in Lancet Neurology showed that one hour of weekly exercise decreased the risk of Alzheimer’s by half. In addition, people who were physically inactive had an 82% increased risk of Alzheimer’s. The brain-boosting benefit of exercise is likely related to the growth of new nerve cells in brain areas related to memory, attention, and planning. The positive impact of exercise is even stronger for individuals with a genetic risk for Alzheimer’s than those without it. Most research suggests that 30 minutes of heart-pumping aerobic exercise four to five times per week provides brain-boosting benefits. Engaging in various types of aerobic exercises provides even more brain-boosting benefit than repeating the same type of exercise. Walking, hiking, dance, swimming, water walking, biking, running, and chair aerobics are some of the many examples of engaging cardiovascular exercise. If motivation is an issue, try incorporating music or exercising for just five minutes (which often leads to more!).
3. Swap brain-sapping foods for brain-healthy foods
The MIND Diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) is a brain-health diet that was formulated by merging the most effective components of the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets with other brain-boosting foods. Recommended foods include nuts, chicken, fish, olive oil, berries, green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, red wine, whole grains, beans. Minimal consumption of five foods associated with decreased brain health is also recommended (fried foods, butter, cheese, red meat, pastries and sweets). Individuals who followed the MIND Diet for just four years showed a dramatic 53% reduced risk of Alzheimer’s.
4. Think “Brain Building” instead of “Brain Games”
Brain games may not be the most efficient way to build connections between brain cells/neurons over the long haul. In contrast, what I refer to as “Brain Building” activities seek to intentionally increase the number of connections between neurons so that information is processed more quickly and remembered more effectively. Such connections might also help stave off future symptoms of Alzheimer’s. A Mayo Clinic study earlier this year demonstrated the breadth and impact of Brain Building activities. Results showed that the risk of developing memory problems decreased by 30 percent when people used computers, by 28 percent when they did crafts, by 23 percent when they were involved in social activities and by 22 percent when playing games. The effect was strongest when the activities were done one to two times weekly. Brain Building activities should be slightly challenging, engaging, and varied. Examples include learning a new language, a new route to work, new information about a topic you love, watching educational television, and endless other activities that you enjoy and are slightly challenging.
5. Maximize happiness
Chronic stress and depression increase the risk of Alzheimer’s. Recognizing and managing stress and depression improves quality of life and happiness levels, and boosts brain health. Effective stress management also helps decrease high levels of stress hormones such as cortisol, which have been shown to impair memory performance. Several tools are helpful in managing stress and depression, including physical exercise, meditation, relaxation, setting limits on our schedules, and reframing how we think about difficult situations. A healthier brain is often a happier brain, so you may notice a greater overall sense of well-being as you build your brain health.
These tips – when accompanied by adequate sleep (approximately seven to nine hours per night), good vascular health (minimizing and treating high blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol), and input from your healthcare provider – will help you build a High Octane Brain that positively impacts your health, thinking skills, and happiness. There are few things more important (or empowering) than that!