Alzheimer’s and dementia currently affect over 5 million Americans. By 2050, scientists predict as many as 16 million will become afflicted with these neurodegenerative disorders, which is a 40% increase in the disease in just 32 years (source).
Luckily for those of us who are growing a little over the hill or far beyond it, research into how to stop Alzheimer’s and dementia is accumulating exponentially.
Scientists are currently studying strategies like using red light therapy (LLLT) to stimulate the mitochondria—the energy-yielding batteries in our cells—to spur growth of new neurons and strengthen neural connections (source).
Other scientists are researching the effects of playing certain spatially-challenging video games to keep the brain sharp and protect it from neurodegeneration, we’ll discuss this more momentarily.
In a remarkably comprehensive study, Drs. Leshner, Petersen, et. al.’s 2017 meta-analysis titled “Preventing Cognitive Decline and Dementia: The Way Forward” analyzes all strategies researched into preventing neurodegenerative diseases to date.
After analyzing studies that researched the effectiveness of various prevention strategies from eating foods rich in certain nutrients and polyphenols, to certain types of herbs and lifestyle behaviors, they concluded that there are three strategies that consistently prove to reduce one’s change of Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline.
- Regular physical exercise
- Keeping blood pressure normal
- Brain training
Let’s take a closer look at these proven methods to protect your brain from neurodegenerative diseases and keep your mind and memory sharp.
Exercise is always a smart lifestyle choice but especially so for the aging brain, scientists are finding. In fact, weekly exercise not only helps you keep the mind quick and sharp, it also protects you from neurodegenerative diseases of all kinds.
It might help if we define neurodegeneration before we go more into these studies. Neurodegeneration means the gradual or sudden loss of neurons and their connectivity that accompanies diseases like Alzheimer’s, dementia, and Parkinson’s.
In a one 2011 study, for example, scientists found that older adults who walked three times a week for 40 minutes a day were able to improve brain connectivity and enhance activity in the part of the brain involved with memory, day dreaming, planning, organizing, and reflecting upon the past. In fact, the leader of this study, Dr. Kirk Erikson, believes exercise may reduce the risk of both Alzheimer’s and dementia by as much as 50% (source).
In a 2015 meta-analysis combining the results of numerous studies into the benefits of exercise for preventing neurodegenerative diseases, researchers concluded that being more physically active is associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease and that individuals already diagnosed with Alzheimer’s also have been found to significantly improve aspects of cognition and to mitigated physical and mental symptoms of the disease by participating in routine physical exercise (in most studies, this means a long walk of at least 40 min.) at least three times a week (source).
Overall, it’s quite apparent that exercise will help you not only prevent Alzheimer’s but will also help you to enhance cognitive function if you already have it.
Keep your blood pressure in check
Trying to keep blood pressure stable is very important, research is showing, if you want to prevent the onset of neurodegenerative diseases of all kinds. However, there are strong correlations between both low and high blood pressure and Alzheimer’s.
Here’s what we know.
Although researchers are still hard at work on determining the various links between blood pressure status and dementia/Alzheimer’s risk, what researchers do know is that high blood pressure can damage blood vessels in the brain, which can affect areas of the brain responsible for memory and thinking, such as the hippocampus.
In 2013, researchers concluded that older persons with high blood pressure were more likely to show the presence of markers for Alzheimer’s in their spinal fluid (source)
Another study concluded that the more blood pressure varied within an 8-year period, the stronger the risk of dementia. Although study results vary, the weight of evidence clearly links high blood pressure with increased risk of dementia and neurodegenerative diseases, as the Harvard Medical School notes (source).
And on an interesting note, another recent study, in fact a Johns Hopkins report published in the journal Neurology, found that blood pressure lowering medications may be able to reduce risk of Alzheimer’s as well. Researchers found that taking potassium-sparing diuretics reduced the risk of Alzheimer’s nearly 75 percent, while people taking other antihypertensive drugs lowered their risk by approximately 1/3rd (source).
Cognitive exercise and critical thinking
Research is showing that the more complex cognitive exercise one can engage in on a regular basis, the better.
Cognitive exercises are brain challenging exercises that promote critical thinking skills, and the more the brain has to work, research suggests, the better. A systematic review of 22 studies found that individuals who engage in more complex mental activities are at 46% lower risk for dementia and neurocognitive decline (source).
As far as complex activities go, one study found that arts, crafts, playing a musical instrument, and other hobbies are very neuroprotective and neuro-enhancing (source).
In fact, acting in plays has proven remarkably effective for improving all aspects of cognition in the elderly, as it requires memorization of one’s lines, creativity, and other mind-challenging but fun activities.
At the end of a recent 15 year study, researchers found individuals who participated in theater arts showed “significant improvements in performance of activities of daily living, as well as on standard measures of memory, comprehension, problem-solving ability, and personal growth through this unique intervention” (source).
Cognitive training is the most promising of the three methods of preventing Alzheimer’s and other diseases, as one of the authors of the 149-page study mentioned above notes:
“This doesn’t mean crossword puzzles or Sudoku, although those won’t hurt. People will have to work at it . . . Can you, in fact, find a new way to try to remember a list of grocery items? [or] Instead of using a smartphone calculator to figure out a tip, do it in your head.”
In other words, consciously try to remember some complex number and word lists every day. Start trying to do math in your head and then Google answers to see if you were right. Do your states and capitals.
Try to memorize all the presidents. Challenge your memory daily and there’s no way your brain won’t be constantly growing stronger. The brain is a muscle—daily exercise strengthens it, just like it does the biceps. In fact, as the study’s chief author notes, of all the types of brain training techniques, memory training has, so far, has shown the most promising results in studies for protecting and enhancing the brains of seniors.
The Best Fun Cognitive Training that Works? Video Games!
Video games are booming with seniors, today, due to a number of studies showing exponential benefits of video games for boosting memory, cognition, brain plasticity, and enhancing quality of life of older persons. 3-D and spatially challenging video games are proving to help older adults exercise the hippocampal regions of the brain and keep neurons and protect them.
In studies, 3-D games like Super Mario 3-D (or the super-immersive, rich world of Super Mario Odyssey) have proven to boost neurogenesis (the birth of new neurons) and memory as well.
The leader of this University of California, Irvine study, professor of neurobiology, Craig Stark, explains that unlike typical brain training programs, video games “are designed to immerse users in the characters and adventure. They draw on many cognitive processes, including visual, spatial, emotional, motivational, attentional, critical thinking, problem-solving and working memory.”
Stark muses, “Can we use this video game approach to help improve hippocampus functioning? It’s often suggested that an active, engaged lifestyle can be a real factor in stemming cognitive aging. While we can’t all travel the world on vacation, we can do many other things to keep us cognitively engaged and active. Video games may be a nice, viable route” (source).
Researchers at UC San Francisco are researching how seniors’ brains are improved by playing video games, specifically a computer based driving game they have designed to improve the memories and minds of seniors.
In this study, researchers had subjects aged 20 to 70 play a game called NeuroRacer, a game which tasks the player with steering a car along a hilly, winding road while watching out for falling objects they must shoot down with their other hand.
After four weeks, researchers found out the seniors’ brains had improved more than the younger participants. Even more importantly, their test scores remained high six months later, confirming they retained these improvements in brain quality. Specifically, researchers learned that this video game boosts brain plasticity and neurological networks in the brain responsible for processes that enable people to pursue goals. (source).
You cannot buy this game yet, but they are hard at work developing a version to be released to a clamoring public, who’ve read the studies and want to experience the benefits.
However, there are all kinds of games that are 3-D in nature and are highly immersive, challenge, and proven to stimulate neurogenesis.
Suggested Spatial, 3-D Video Games Like Mario-3-D and Super Mario Odyssey:
- Syberia 3 (help guide a group of wee nomads and their snow ostriches to safety in the snowy Siberian tundra—evocative and beautiful game).
- Perception (a world of puzzles in which a blind woman must feel and guide her way through a spooky mansion—fun!)
- Dragon Quest Heroes II (a peaceable kingdom ruled by warrior princesses is suddenly besieged on all fronts).
- Observer (set in 2084—a detective adventure a la Bladerunner that sounds utterly fascinating)
- Super Mario Odyssey
Although you’ll find literally hundreds of articles recommending everything from herbs and eating blueberries to weight lifting or listening to Mozart, the three strategies discussed here today have proven evidence behind them for preventing neurodegenerative diseases.