Alzheimer’s and other dementia disorders are expected to afflict 13 million Americans by mid-century. That’s more than double the number who today suffer from the brain disease that begins as forgetfulness and progresses into loss of brain function that affects memory, thinking and behavior.
Common risk factors for Alzheimer's include family history, long-term high blood pressure, being female, repeated head trauma and the one we all fear – simply aging.
None alone guarantee Alzheimer’s – and University of Pittsburgh neuropsychologist Paul Nussbaum says you can turn the odds in your favor with five healthy lifestyle behaviors to protect your brain.
1. Get physical. “One is physical activity. The reason why that’s important is every time your heart beats, 25 percent of the blood goes to the brain,” says Nussbaum.
And it doesn’t have to be a lot of exercise. In his book, “Save Your Brain,” Nussbaum cites a 2006 study from the Journal of Gerontology that suggests three hours of brisk walking each week produces new cells in the area of the brain that controls complex thinking, reasoning and attention.
2. Stimulate Your Mind. Nussbaum says regular mental stimulation provides another Alzheimer’s barrier. Learn a new language, read daily – and read more than just the news. Also, play an instrument or travel each week to some new place. Nussbaum says challenge your mind, and you’ll help grow new connections in your brain.
"I like to tell people you kind of want your brain to look like a jungle. So across your lifespan if you spend time doing novel and complex things your brain looks like a jungle and if you think of disease, like Alzheimer’s, like a weed wacker for example, it’s going to take a long time to show it’s face," Nussbaum says. "We don’t have a prevention or a cure but if your brain is sort of like a jungle, imagine how long it will take for a weed wacker to show any kind of impact."
3. Eat Well. Nutrition is another key factor that affects brain health — in particular, so-called “good fats.” They’re in unsalted nuts, avocados and fatty fish, like salmon and herring. Because the brain comprises about 60 percent fat, eating the right kind is essential to maintaining brain function.
"That fat insulates the nerve tracks and propels information rapidly," says Nussbaum. "Without it, we kind of slow down with our thinking processes."
4. Be Social. Nussbaum cites the benefits of lifelong socialization — or keeping your brain engaged with other brains.
"We don’t want to isolate and segregate," he says. "With older adults there is sometimes a struggle getting for example Uncle Bill out of his room, or Dad out of his room,or Mom to stay involved in her activities because when a brain isolates, it kind of shrinks up, if you will, and increases the risk for dementia."
5. Have Faith. The fifth and final area key to promoting brain health is spirituality – not necessarily religion, Nussbaum says, but some sort of regular practice in which you engage in meditation or deep introspection.
"That really goes to helping the brain remain at peace and kind of electrically stable and try to remove stress from our lives. Stress, a lot of people don’t know, can physically ... functionally damage the brain, particularly those with chronic stress, post traumatic stress disorder, those who have been exposed to life threatening stressers."
Nussbaum will be sharing more about Alzheimer’s and the role these five critical brain functions play during a free talk in Pasadena on Nov. 29 at 10 a.m. at The University Club of Pasadena, 175 North Oakland Ave., Pasadena, CA 91101.
Seating is limited. Reservations can be made here or by calling 877-282-1584 for additional information.