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How a Healthy Lifestyle Reduces the Risk of Dementia

Senior couple cooking together at home love
Senior couple cooking together at home meal preparation

Our brains manage everything in our bodies from memories, emotions and feelings to physical functions and more. Because dementia is a disease that affects the entire brain, not just memory and cognitive processing, it eventually causes an individual’s abilities to decline and ultimately cease. Naturally, we want to do everything possible to avoid developing dementia, but as science isn’t sure exactly what yet causes it, there’s no magic pill we can take in order to prevent it. However, new guidelines released May 14, 2019, by the World Health Organization (WHO) show that although there isn’t a pill to stave off dementia, a healthy lifestyle might be the next best thing.

“According to WHO guidelines, it may be possible to delay or slow the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia,” says Pamela Klapproth, CEO of Kendal on Hudson, a not-for-profit Life Plan Community serving older adults in the Quaker tradition in Sleepy Hollow, NY. “The key is to manage the risks that you can control, such as eating a healthy diet, avoiding unhealthy habits and getting plenty of exercise.”

Other guidelines outlined in the WHO study recommends keeping weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar under control; eating a Mediterranean-style diet filled with vegetables, lean proteins and healthy fats; avoiding smoking and drinking too much alcohol; and living in ways that reduce your overall stress.

“A lot of people assume that dementia and cognitive decline is something that just happens as we age and there’s nothing we can do about it, but that’s simply not so,” Pamela explains. “No matter how old or young we are, there are plenty of things we can start doing to improve our lifestyles and brain health practically immediately.”

June is Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month, which makes it a perfect time to kick off healthy habits to improve your lifestyle as well as learn about different factors that will keep our cognitive function as sharp as possible. Pamela says it’s important to understand what a “healthy lifestyle” means with regard to brain health so you can intentionally do things to work towards it.

“We understand very well how lifestyle relates to dementia risk, which is why we have designed our health and wellness services to promote brain-healthy habits,” says Pamela. “This is true for our Independent Living and Assisted Living residents as well as our Memory Support residents.”

“Sunnyside, our Memory Support residence, promotes a secure environment along with a healthy lifestyle that helps our individuals with cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s guard and protect their abilities for as long as possible, allowing them to live fulfilled, enjoyable and dignified lives. With a private garden, bright and natural light and a feels-like-home ambience, we ensure that Memory Support is elegant, serene and welcoming—as well as healthy.”

Heart health = brain health.

The first step in a healthy lifestyle is to practice heart-healthy habits. Your brain and your heart are connected in more ways than one, since oxygenated blood is what nourishes your brain. When health issues like diabetes, heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular issues arise, this can cause clogs and clots that cut off the flow of blood to your brain, which can lead to dead or damaged brain cells.

Experts recommend a heart-healthy diet filled with vegetables and fruits, lean proteins, whole grains, healthy fats like olive oil and nuts, antioxidant-rich foods and foods high in omega-3s. Avoiding fatty meats, saturated fats, refined sugars and alcohol is another part of a heart-healthy diet:

Of course, exercise and staying physically active are the other side of the “healthy lifestyle” coin when it comes to heart health. Getting regular exercise keeps your heart in tip-top shape and your blood vessels as clear as possible. By maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular exercise and working with your doctor to manage any health issues, you’ll be well on your way to helping reduce your risk of dementia.

Your brain needs exercise, too.

The brain is technically an organ, but in some respects, it’s also like a muscle—figuratively speaking. “Flexing” your little gray cells will help keep your mental acumen and cognitive abilities as sharp as possible and can actually help generate new brain cells and new connections between your neurons. However, if you don’t exercise your brain, you can lose that elasticity—much like the “use it or lose it” phenomenon with your muscles.

This neuroplasticity continues throughout your whole life, and even individuals with dementia have shown benefits from exercising the brain to keep remaining abilities as sharp as possible. And exercising your brain doesn’t mean that you have to do logic puzzles or learn complicated physics. While learning new and interesting things is one way of keeping your mind active, doing favorite hobbies and staying socially active are both ways to get your neurons firing. That’s great news for those of us who would rather have a lively conversation with our best friends instead of attending a lecture. (Although both are great.)

Don’t forget to sleep tight.

Think of sleep as your body’s “reboot” function. Recent research has shown that sleep helps to clear the brain of toxins including beta-amyloids—proteins that have been linked strongly to the development of dementia and cognitive decline. But as we get older, it does get harder for us to get a good night’s sleep due to the changes that occur in aging bodies.

As you’re developing a healthy lifestyle plan, don’t forget to plan for good sleep hygiene. This means transforming your bedroom into a haven for sleep. First, get rid of anything that doesn’t have to do with sleeping or other nighttime activities. Yes, that includes removing televisions, computers and other screens from the bedroom. Not only do electronics emit a blue light that disrupt our circadian rhythm, but having items like this in our rooms subconsciously keep us from recognizing the bedroom as a place to sleep. (Strange but true.) Make sure the room is dark enough and at a comfortable temperature. Next, start a nighttime routine that signals “sleepy time” about an hour before bed. Shut off screens, avoid alcohol and caffeine and do something that relaxes you and will put you in a calm mood.

If you’re already practicing most of these health habits, congratulations. You’re taking great steps towards reducing your risk of dementia. If you still need to adopt some of these habits into your daily routine, never fear. Consider starting off with small changes in order to help the habits stick. As they become easier and more routine for you, you can continue to add on new things. Soon, you’ll find yourself living a healthy lifestyle that leaves you feeling great, energized and happy—and also reduces your risk of developing dementia. It’s a total win-win.

Together, Transforming the Experience of Aging.®

Founded on Quaker principles and guided by our values and practices, Kendal on Hudson provides a vibrant, active and social senior lifestyle on our 25-acre campus next to the historic Hudson River. As the only Lifecare community in Westchester County, we offer five levels of service for our residents: Independent Living, Assisted Living, Memory Support, Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation.

Kendal on Hudson is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization led by a volunteer Board of Directors. Kendal on Hudson is an affiliate of The Kendal Corporation, a system of communities and services for older people based in Kennett Square, PA. We support diversity, inclusiveness, and independence and support the values and practices of Kendal by remaining focused on healthy aging. Located in Sleepy Hollow, New York, just 35 miles from New York City, we offer a vibrant lifestyle, cultural programs, continued learning and health care for life.

 For more information, please call 866-358-5802.