Newsflash: your body undergoes countless physical changes when you turn 40. But believe it or not, the most profound of those changes isn’t necessarily the withering of muscle mass or even the slowing of the release of your sex hormones. No, turns out it’s the physical shrinking of your brain. (Have your attention now? Good.)
Here’s the good news: you’ve got a powerful arsenal of healthy-living tactics you can use today to slow, stop, or reverse that trend—and in doing so you’ll be decreasing your odds of cognitive decline and developing Alzheimer’s. Want to keep your brain sharp as a tack well into your 40s and beyond? Then read on. And for more great advice on aging, here are the 40 Ways to Guarantee Healthy Skin After 40.
Grow yourself a bigger brain.
Research has found that the brain’s weight and/or volume declines with age at a rate of around 5 percent per decade after the age of 40. The shrinkage isn’t uniform, however. Most of it occurs in the frontal cortex, meaning that it’s more difficult to learn new things as we age. (Old dogs, new tricks, and all that…) The good news is that scientists now believe you can increase the size of your brain through the act of learning. In 2012, a Swedish study showed that language-related areas of the the brain can grow after study participants learned a foreign language. For more ways to learn, try playing any of the 8 Video Games That Are Scientifically Proven to Make You Smarter.
Get a genetic test.
I hate to say it, but you’ve got a 25 percent chance of having a genetic time bomb that makes you three to ten times more susceptible to developing late-onset Alzheimer’s. The gene is called apolipoprotein E4, or ApoE4.
At the moment, scientists aren’t sure whether the ApoE4 allele represents a gain of toxic function, a loss of neuroprotective function, or both. Regardless, the fact remains that if you inherit a single variant of ApoE4 from one parent, your Alzheimer’s risk triples. If you inherit a double dose from both parents, your risk increases by ten times. So be sure to ask your doctor about a DNA test to reveal your ApoE4 genotype.
Chomp on leafy greens.
Kale, spinach, collard, and mustard greens are all foods that are high in folate and B9, which improve cognition and reduce depression.
Become a crossword addict.
A 2017 study, presented to an international conference in London on Alzheimer’s, revealed that people who regularly do crosswords have brains that are ten years younger their actual age. The research involved 17,000 people, with the study authors looking at participants’ attention, short-term memory, and speed of response to grammatical tests.
India has one of the world’s lowest rates of Alzheimer’s—and some people theorize that curry is the reason why. See, curry powder contains turmeric—the yellow-orange spice—which is is packed with curcumin. Curcumin works by blocking the build-up of Alzheimer’s-inducing amyloid plaques (deposits found in the brains of sufferers) then nibbles away at existing plaques to slow cognitive decline. It’s recommended to eat two or three yellow curries a week. But if you can’t—or won’t—stomach the heat, you can also take turmeric as a supplement.
Learn the early signs of Alzheimer’s.
If you think that memory problems are indicative of possibly having Alzheimer’s, we’ve got news for you: You’re right. But what you might not know is that lapses of memory are often not the first clue that something’s wrong. You may, for instance, notice a decline in depth perception, confusion while completing a puzzle or reading a map, a diminished sense of smell, an increased tendency to ask the same question over and over again, or a propensity for leaving personal items in odd places. Not ignoring these lesser-known and earlier signs can be a key part of how effective lifestyle changes and medications will be down the line.
Eat like a Mediterranean.
Following a Mediterranean diet—which is characterized by green leafy vegetables, fish, fruits, nuts, legumes, olive oil, and, of course, a little vino—can cut your chances of Alzheimer’s by nearly half, according to a study from 2006. Plus, earlier this year, the Italians were declared the healthiest people on the globe: Here are 5 Tips To Adopting Their Healthy Living Secrets.
Protect your vision.
Research has shown that, if you preserve good or excellent vision as you age, your chances of developing dementia drop by an incredible 63 percent. And even if your eyesight is poor, you’re not completely on the outs: Visiting an optician for an eye test and possible treatment at least once in later life has been shown to cut your dementia odds by about the same amount. Possible explanations for the link include the fact that impaired vision makes it difficult to participate in mental and physical activities—such as reading and exercising—as well as social activities, which are believed to delay cognitive decline.
Just as belly fat helps cause the formation of plaque in your coronary arteries, it also clogs up the arteries feeding the brain—a contributing factor in the development of Alzheimer’s. Ironically, the best way to fight fat is with fat. Avocados—which we like to think of as nature’s butter—are packed with artery-scrubbing healthy fats.
Drink hot chocolate.
Chocolate’s principal ingredient, cocoa, has high concentrations of a type of antioxidant called flavanols, which boast brain protecting properties. To get the most benefit, make yourself a brimming cup of hot chocolate. Cocoa powder has twice as many flavanols as dark chocolate, which, in turn, has twice as many as milk chocolate. (White chocolate has zero.)
Another hot beverage you may want to quaff on the reg is coffee. A good cup of Joe is is anti-inflammatory, helps block the ill effects of cholesterol in the brain, and cuts the risks of stroke, depression, and diabetes, all promoters of dementia. For most people, a moderate daily intake of coffee—about two to four cups—should do the trick.
Avoid head trauma.
Several studies have shown a strong link between future risk of Alzheimer’s and serious head trauma, particularly when injury involves loss of consciousness. You can help reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s by wearing a seat belt and wearing a helmet when cycling, skiing, or doing any other risky activity.
A study from the University of British Columbia demonstrated that regular aerobic exercise boosts the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning. We’re talking running, swimming, jumping rope, spinning—stuff that gets your heart rate up.
Resistance training, balance, and muscle-toning exercises did not have the same results. “Aerobic exercise is two to three times as effective as any known brain-training activity,” says Sam Wang, PhD, associate professor of neuroscience at Princeton University and co-author of Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life.
Be more sociable.
Scientists in Chicago, studying the brain of a highly sociable 90-year-old woman who died from Alzheimer’s, discovered that having a large social network blessed her with a “cognitive reserve” that essentially enabled her brain to not realize she had Alzheimer’s. Experts don’t exactly know why, exactly, but it’s been shown that interacting with friends and family seems to make the brain more efficient. The social interaction creates alternative routes of communication to bypass connections broken by Alzheimer’s. Your best move is to see friends and family often and expand your social network.
Eat beans and legumes.
Beans and legumes contain more folate, iron, magnesium, and potassium, all of which can help your neurons fire. They also contain choline, a B vitamin that boosts acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter critical for brain function.
Put vinegar on everything.
Studies have also found that vinegar can curb appetite and food intake, helping prevent weight gain and obesity, which are associated with diabetes, accelerated dementia, and memory loss. Add it to salad dressings, or even mix it into a glass of drinking water.
Get a good night’s sleep.
A lack of sleep is bad across the board but it’s especially toxic to brain cells. A 2017 study in Neurology found that people who get less REM—rapid eye movement, or dream-state, sleep—may be at higher risk for developing dementia. REM is the fifth stage of sleep, when the eyes move, the body heats up, breathing and pulse quicken, and the mind starts dreaming.
“The next step will be to determine why lower REM sleep predicts a greater risk of dementia,” study author Matthew P. Pase, of Swinburne University of Technology in Australia, said in a news release. “By clarifying the role of sleep in the onset of dementia, the hope is to eventually identify possible ways to intervene so that dementia can be delayed or even prevented.” In the meantime, don’t forget to check out our Ten Tips for Your Best Sleep Ever.
Enjoy cherry tomatoes.
Bright red and orange vegetables are top sources of carotenoids, a type of nutrient that seems to improve cognition and memory over longer periods of time. One of the most powerful carotenoids is lycopene, which is found in high doses in the skin of tomatoes. Because lycopene is concentrated in the skin, cherry tomatoes—as opposed to, say, beefsteak tomatoes—give more memory bang for your buck.
Steer clear of bad fats.
Stay away from saturated fats which strangle brain cells causing them to become inefficient. Buy low-fat or fat-free dairy products while cutting down on deep-fried foods.
Take an ABI test.
It turns out that lower-than-normal blood flow in your foot could be an indication of potential trouble in your brain. A quick, simple, and painless ankle-brachial index test can give you a read on the likelihood of having a stroke and dementia; your doc will basically compare the blood pressure in your ankle with the blood pressure in your arm. The theory—per a 2011 meta-study—is that the degree of clogged arteries and blood flow in the feet can predict the level of atherosclerosis in cerebral blood vessels.
Avoid microwave popcorn.
Not only do major brands, like Jiffy Pop, contain heart-harming trans fats, many of them are also made with diacetyl (DA), a chemical that’s been found to break down the layer of cells that protects the brain. Steer clear of the butter-flavored microwaveable variety.
Chew on some pumpkin seeds.
A better movie snack might be zinc-rich pumpkin seeds. Zinc is vital for enhancing memory and thinking skills at we age. Researchers at Duke University Medical Center and chemists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology collaborated to study the effects of zinc on brain function and found that, in the absence of the mineral, communications between neurons was significantly diminished and that zinc is vital for controlling the efficiency between nerve cells in the hippocampus.
Supplement with estrogen (if you’re female).
Over two-thirds (68 percent) of Alzheimer’s patients are women. One theory posits that the midlife drop-off in estrogen is why. (Estrogen is a hormone that boosts memory.) Talk with your doctor about the risks and benefits of taking an estrogen supplement during the lead up to menopause (perimenopause) or as menopause proper begins. According to a Norwegian study from 2016, it could better preserve brain structure and reduce your risk of dementia.
Bump up “good” cholesterol.
HDL is often referred to as “good” cholesterol. (LDL is the one you want keep under control). You likely already know that HDL protects you from heart disease—but it can also safeguard your mental faculties as you age, according to Italian research from 2010. It’s thought that LDL both blocks sticky stuff that destroys brain cells and acts as an anti-inflammatory to lessen brain damage. Exercising, watching your diet, cutting weight, and even drinking moderate amounts of alcohol are all ways to raise your good cholesterol.
Drink red wine.
According to research, a daily glass of wine—preferably red—may help delay dementia. Research has shown that in addition to its anti-inflammatory properties and ability to raises good cholesterol, the high level antioxidants in red wine give it additional anti-dementia clout. These antioxidants act as artery relaxants, dilating blood vessels and increasing blood flow, both of which encourage cognitive functioning.
Enjoy an omelette.
According to new research from the University of California Davis Alzheimer’s Disease Center and Rutgers University, older people who suffer from vitamin D deficiency show faster rates of cognitive decline than those with adequate vitamin D levels. Getting your daily dose of D is as easy as cracking open some eggs. Three large eggs—what you’d use to make a morning omelet—will provide 33 percent of the day’s intake. Just make sure you eat the yolk—that’s where all of the brain-protective nutrients are.
Drink green tea.
A Japanese study found the drinking green tea regularly lowers your risk of dementia and staves off memory decline among older people.
Prevent and control diabetes.
Studies show that Type-2 diabetes may double or triple your risk of Alzheimer’s. And, the earlier diabetes takes hold, the higher the odds of dementia. Some experts refer to Alzheimer’s as “diabetes of the brain.” Do everything possible to keep blood sugar levels low and stick to a low-saturated fat diet and regular exercise.
Eat your Omega-3s.
Folks whose diets contain daily omega 3s have been shown to have 26 percent less risk of having brain lesions that cause dementia compared with those who don’t. Get your omega fatty acids from fish, flax seeds, and olive oil, or by taking a quality omega-3 supplement.
Go surfing…the web.
Relying on the Internet to store information has been shown to reduce our ability to recall. (In fact, it’s one of 17 Lifestyle Habits That Are Ruining Your Brain.) But a new study found that surfing the internet can, in fact, provide some benefits.
Researchers at UCLA measured brain activity of older adults as they searched the web. They recruited two groups of people: one that had minimal computer experience and another that was relatively Web-savvy. They found that members of the technologically advanced group had more than twice the neural activation than their less experienced counterparts while searching for things online. What’s more, they noted that the activity occurred in the region of the brain that controls decision-making and complex reasoning.
Walnuts have been shown to improve brain function in mice with Alzheimer’s disease. Though no one is certain the same would hold true in humans, adding walnuts to your diet can only benefit your health, due to their troves of polyunsaturated fats, a type of fat that activates genes that reduce fat storage. Bottom line: eating walnuts to protect your brain is definitely worth a shot.
When you are under stress, your body pumps out hormones called corticosteroids, which can save you in a crisis. Over time, chronic corticosteroid production can destroy brain cells and suppress the growth of new ones, actually shrinking your brain. Managing stress through meditation, exercise, an adequate amount of sleep, and talking about what’s stressing you out with friends may be helpful in keeping your faculties from deteriorating.
Replace peanut butter with almond butter.
Almonds contain high concentrations of vitamin E (three times more than peanut butter), which has been shown to help reduce the risk of cognitive impairment. And some studies indicate the nutrient can also slow the decline caused by Alzheimer’s disease.
Keep tabs on sudden weight loss.
Unexplained weight loss may be a sign of Alzheimer’s. A study showed that women with the disease started losing weight at least ten years before dementia was diagnosed. Among women of equal weight, those who went on to develop dementia slowly became thinner over three preceding decades.
“Most researchers including myself have shifted focus to what’s happening in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease,” said Dr. Makoto Ishii, the lead author of a 2014 weight-and-Alzheimer’s study at Weill Cornell’s Feil Family Brain and Mind Research Institute. “There have been a lot of big clinical trials in the news that have failed, so the thought is that perhaps once patients develop dementia it may be irreversible. Therefore, can we intervene earlier?” With that thought in mind, talk to your doctor about any unexplained weight loss.
Brush and floss.
According to U.S. dental researchers, people with tooth and gum disease tend to score lower in memory and cognition tests. They found that infection responsible for gum disease gives off inflammatory byproducts that travel to areas of the brain involved in memory loss. In another study, older people with the most severe gingivitis—inflamed gums—were two to three times more likely to show signs of impaired memory and cognition than those with the least. Consequently, brushing, flossing, and preventing gum disease may help protect your grey matter as well as your pearly whites.
Lose some weight.
Middle age, Bob Hope once joked, is when your age starts to show around your middle. What Bob didn’t know is that an expanding girth at 40 can mean that your brain is aging more rapidly and losing volume. A UCLA study from 2009 showed that overweight people had 4 percent less and obese people had 8 percent less brain tissue and than normal-weight people.
What’s more, their brains looked 16 years older than the brains of lean people. Brain shrinkage occurred in areas of the brain targeted by Alzheimer’s, which are critical for planning, long term memory, attention, and executive functions, and control of movement. Seeing as we tend to continue to gain weight in our 40s, be sure to keep yours in check to lessen your chances of brain shrinkage and Alzheimer’s.
Load up on B12.
Researchers at Oxford University found that a brain running low on B12 actually shrinks—and that a shortage can lead to brain atrophy by stripping away myelin, a fatty protective sheath around neurons. It can also trigger inflammation, another destroyer of brain cells. Take 500 to 1000mcg of vitamin B12 daily after the age of 40.
Enjoy Cruciferous vegetables.
Cauliflower, bok choy, brussels sprouts, and broccoli all contain folate and have carotenoids that lower homocysteine, an amino acid linked with cognitive impairment.
Avoid diet and citrus-flavored sodas.
Brominated vegetable oil (BVO) can be readily found in North American versions of Seven Up, Squirt, Mountain Dew, and Sunkist. While small levels of BVO aren’t harmful on their own, it can build up in our systems and eventually cause memory loss.
An animal study published in European Review for Medical and Pharmacological Sciences found that aspartame, the artificial sweetener commonly used in sugar-free drinks, can have a negative effect on memory. If you like bubbles and citrus flavors, squeezing juice from a lemon or lime into carbonated water is a much better idea.
Make going to the sauna a frequent habit.
A study by the University of Eastern Finland discovered that frequent trips to the sauna could reduce the risk of dementia. They found that men who who went to the sauna seven times a week were 66 percent less likely to be diagnosed with the condition than those who went only once. But if you’re hopping into a sauna internationally, make sure you don’t wear a bathing suit: That’s one of the 30 Biggest Cultural Mistakes Americans Make Abroad.
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