Until recently, many doctors believed Alzheimer’s disease, the most common type of dementia, was a genetic condition. But more doctors and scientists have begun to think of dementia as a preventable disease, similar to the way doctors now understand heart disease, cancer, and type II diabetes. In fact, researchers believe up to two-thirds of one’s risk for developing dementia is determined by other factors, many of which can be controlled.
Mather Lifeways Institute on Aging, a leader in applied research in the field of aging, has created an evidence-based program that focuses on a variety of lifestyle factors that impact brain health. The six-week program, called Boost Your Brain & Memory, is being offered to community members in partnership with the Evanston Long Term Care Commission at various locations throughout Evanston. The program incorporates video segments and instructor-led activities to guide older adults through a comprehensive overview of the findings and to offer specific activities and lifestyle changes that have been shown to decrease the risk of dementia.
“We have a lot to do with how our brain ages,” said Cate O’Brien, Director of Research and Vice President of Mather Lifeways Institute on Aging. “Brain health is malleable, and certain lifestyle choices can protect our brains.”
For example, the program highlights a study that looked at aging adults and the impact of physical activity on the brain. The participants were divided into two groups. Group A was told to walk for roughly 40 minutes three to four times a week. Group B was told to do some stretching activities three to four times a week. After six months, an MRI scan showed the hippocampus, which plays an important role in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory, was significantly larger in the individuals who were walking, compared to those who were simply stretching.
Physical activity is only one of the six components to the program’s whole-person approach to boosting brain health. Each of the six sessions is dedicated to one of the following topics: physical activity, emotional health, intellectual activity, nutrition, spiritual activity, and social engagement. The research suggests that increasing the level of activity in each of these areas gives the best chance of maintaining brain health throughout life.
Regarding nutrition, Dr. O’Brien said their team of researchers found the Mediterranean diet to be “highly protective of the brain.”
The Mediterranean diet emphasizes eating primarily plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts, as well as replacing butter with healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil. Adding high-quality fish provides brain-boosting omega-3 fatty acids, and limiting red meat and processed foods helps to decrease inflammation in the body.
Finding ways to reduce stress is another component to supporting brain health. “Chronic stress releases cortisol and too much cortisol is detrimental to the brain,” said Dr. O’Brien.
The long-term build up of cortisol can have multiple negative effects on the brain. Too much cortisol inhibits the birth of new brain cells and weakens synaptic connection. But physical activity, social engagement, and spiritual practices are all simple and effective ways to help reduce stress. Activities such as meditation, yoga, and prayer have been found to balance cortisol levels in the brain.
Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change throughout life. Researchers used to think the brain was relatively fixed by the time people reached adulthood, but now there is a general consensus that the brain can change in response to both external and internal stimuli.
Learning something new or participating in any type of intellectual activity such as reading, writing, playing games, or participating in hobbies helps to build cognitive reserve, said Dr. O’Brien. Any type of intellectual activity helps strengthen connections in the brain and stimulates the brain to grow new cells at any age.
Dr. O’Brien said one thing they stress in the program is that it is never too late to create change in the brain. “We can see an improvement in brain function within six to 12 months after implementing just one or some of these lifestyle changes.”
Anyone wishing to find out more about where and when the six-week program is being offered and to sign up to participate should contact firstname.lastname@example.org.