Keeping the aging brain young

The latest science on dementia prevention from an expert on human health and happiness.

16 Sep 2019

Key takeaways

  • Dementia is not a disease, but the term for a set of symptoms that include memory loss and cognitive decline.
  • Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia, and is a leading cause of death in the United States.
  • Research has shown that stress management and good sleeping and eating habits can help prevent dementia.

The Aging Brain: New Developments in Dementia Prevention

Few things strike fear into the hearts of aging adults like dementia. Caused by disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, and characterized by symptoms like memory loss and cognitive decline, the condition now affects an estimated 50 million people worldwide, including nearly 6 million in the United States alone.1-2

Dementia facts and myths

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about dementia is that it's not an inevitable part of aging.

One of the biggest myths we have to throw away is that there is nothing we can do," says Marc Milstein, Ph.D., Faculty Member at California Health & Longevity Institute at Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village.

It's true, Milstein notes, that Alzheimer's disease is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, and there are no brain games or “magic pills" that can significantly cut your chances of developing the disorder.4 Still, he says, new studies have revealed “really exciting news" related to dementia prevention: Through simple measures that almost anyone can incorporate into their daily lives, even those with a family history of Alzheimer's can lower their risk for cognitive decline by up to 65 percent.

“It's incredible because we've always heard that 'we're destined,' or that our genetics are 'controlling' our fate," Milstein says. But the science now shows that in the case of dementia, most people have “more power and control over their destiny" than they probably think.

Steps to take to lower dementia risk

Although dementia incidence are on the rise, with cases expected to triple by 2050, there is also reason for hope on the Alzheimer's and dementia front, according to recent research on aging and the human brain. Here's a look at the science behind dementia and the steps you can take to reduce dementia risk.

According to Milstein, there are nearly a dozen different steps people take to lower their dementia risk, but three measures in particular are key: Prioritize good sleep, eat a healthy diet and focus on effective stress management.

High-quality sleep is important, Milstein explains, because it's required to eliminate built-up “waste" in the brain that has been implicated as a cause of diseases like Alzheimer's. Throughout the day, plaques as well as toxins from the environment can build up in the brain.  Research has demonstrated that during sleep, however, the brain begins to shrink, “so we squeeze the trash out and wash it away," he says.  

Our diet is similarly critical for dementia prevention thanks to the so-called “gut-brain connection." Naturally occurring “good bacteria" in the digestive system, Milstein explains, help our bodies reduce inflammation—another risk factor for dementia. When we eat healthy foods, we feed this bacteria, and “that can help manage our immune response, which can also protect our brain."

Finally, when it comes to stress and dementia, it's important to understand that stress in small doses can be good for the brain. “Your body and your brain are like a car: If it just sits in the garage idle, it breaks down," Milstein says, but if you drive it too much, that's not good either. We should embrace occasional stress and the mental challenges that cause us stress, but we should also find time for regular breaks to engage in activities that push stressors aside. Milstein suggests spending time outdoors—“in the presence of nature"—for at least 20 minutes a day.

Milstein's overall recommendation to anyone concerned about dementia is to address the known risks using an “integrative approach." Get plenty of sleep and exercise, eat well and attempt to make mindfulness—and stress control—a regular part of your daily life. “There are things that we can actionably do," he says, “to lower our risk and keep our brain working better longer."

Dr. Milstein's 10 Best Things You Can Do for Your Brain

  1. Sleep (Light and Dark)
  2. Learn new things
  3. Treat hearing loss
  4. Be socially engaged
  5. Manage stress/mindfulness
  6. Keep inflammation low
  7. MND diet
  8. Moderate exercise/walking
  9. Treat diabetes
  10. Take care of the heart

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