There are two ways to look at June’s commemoration of Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month. First, Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death. Currently, 5.7 million people in the U.S., including 71,000 Coloradans, are living with the only major disease without a prevention, treatment or cure. On the other hand, Alzheimer’s Association researchers remind people that the steps they take to ensure a healthy heart and body are keys to maintaining a vibrant brain, and may provide some defense.
“Research on cognitive decline is still evolving,” said Amelia Schafer, interim executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association Colorado Chapter. “But there are proactive steps people can take to support the health of our brain. Certain healthy behaviors known to combat cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes are believed to also reduce the risk of cognitive decline. These include staying mentally active, engaging in regular physical activity, and eating a heart-healthy diet that benefits your body and brain.”
Coloradans are supporting the search for a cure
The search for a cure for Alzheimer’s is a global initiative that has roots in Colorado. Recently, the Colorado Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association committed $1.1 million in locally raised dollars to fund seven promising young researchers on four continents in their effort to find a cure.
“This is a significant undertaking by the board of directors of the Colorado Chapter to commit more than $1 million to these very promising research projects,” said Heather M. Snyder, Ph.D., senior director of Medical and Scientific Operations for the Alzheimer’s Association. “Efforts like this support the Association’s commitment to research and extend funding to more qualified scientists and proposals.”
How lifestyle changes may reduce Alzheimer’s risk
Research published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, offers 10 tips on healthy lifestyle changes that may reduce the risk of cognitive decline:
1. Break a sweat. Engage in regular cardiovascular exercise that elevates your heart rate and increases blood flow to the brain and body. Several studies have found an association between physical activity and reduced risk of cognitive decline.
2. Hit the books. Formal education in any stage of life will help reduce your risk of cognitive decline and dementia. For example, take a class at a local college, community center or online.
3. Butt out. Evidence shows that smoking increases risk of cognitive decline. Quitting smoking can reduce that risk to levels comparable to those who have not smoked.
4. Follow your heart. Evidence shows that risk factors for cardiovascular disease and stroke – obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes – negatively impact your cognitive health. Take care of your heart, and your brain just might follow.
5. Heads up! Brain injury can raise your risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Wear a seat belt, use a helmet when playing contact sports or riding a bike, and take steps to prevent falls.
6. Fuel up right. Eat a healthy and balanced diet that is lower in fat and higher in vegetables and fruit to help reduce the risk of cognitive decline. Although research on diet and cognitive function is limited, certain diets, including Mediterranean and Mediterranean-DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), may contribute to risk reduction.
7. Catch some Zzz’s. Not getting enough sleep due to conditions like insomnia or sleep apnea may result in problems with memory and thinking.
8. Take care of your mental health. Some studies link a history of depression with increased risk of cognitive decline, so seek medical treatment if you have symptoms of depression, anxiety or other mental health concerns. Also, try to manage stress.
9. Buddy up. Staying socially engaged may support brain health. Pursue social activities that are meaningful to you. Find ways to be part of your local community – if you love animals, consider volunteering at a local shelter. If you enjoy singing, join a local choir or help at an afterschool program. Or, just share activities with friends and family.
10. Stump yourself. Challenge and activate your mind. Build a piece of furniture. Complete a jigsaw puzzle. Do something artistic. Play games, such as bridge, that make you think strategically. Challenging your mind may have short and long-term benefits for your brain.
“While the adoption of all of these habits is important in influencing brain health, if it seems overwhelming, start with one or two changes and build on them,” Schafer said. “Some changes may be challenging, while others can be fun. Try to choose activities and foods you enjoy.”
For more information about memory loss and proactive steps that you can take to support brain health, call the Alzheimer’s Association of Colorado’s free 24-hour Helpline at 800-272-3900 or go to www.alz.org/co.