In the new film The Iron
Lady, Meryl Streep portrays an aging Margaret Thatcher as she grapples with
encroaching dementia. Jazz singer Etta James, who just passed away from leukemia at age 73, also battled dementia in her later years. It’s a reminder that dementia can strike anyone—even one
of the most indomitable public figures of recent times.
About 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, the
most common type of dementia. And it seems that the slow slide into mental
decline may begin much sooner than previously suspected. A new 10-year study in
the journal BMJ showed declines in
memory, reasoning, and verbal fluency starting
as early as age 45.
But there’s good news, too. A growing body of research
suggests that you may be able to lower your risk for dementia by making
simple lifestyle changes.
Hobbies that give your brain a workout—such as reading,
doing crosswords, or playing chess—help build up reserves of brain cells and
connections. As you age, that activity might slow down mental decline caused by altered connections
in the brain.
The evidence for this benefit isn’t as strong as you might expect.
A 2010 statement from the National Institutes of Health called it “limited but
inconsistent.” Still, if you choose an activity that’s fun and relaxing, you’ll
at the very least enjoy the mental stimulation. Plus, you’ll reduce stress, and that in itself may be good
for the health of your brain.
Play an Instrument
music may give your brain a lifelong boost, according to a study from the
University of Kansas Medical Center. The study included 70 healthy adults age
60 and up, who were divided into groups based on their musical experience. Those
who had played an instrument for at least 10 years did better on tests of
mental abilities than those with no musical training.
Of the highly experienced musicians, almost half were still playing
at the time of the study. But they didn’t do any better on mental tests than
those who had given up playing years before. The researchers speculated that learning
an instrument when younger may have built brain connections that served them
well later in life.
Recently, researchers fromthe Mayo Clinic recently analyzed dozens
of previously published studies on physical activity and
brain function. Taken together, the studies showed that any activity that
raises your heart rate and makes you breathe harder may reduce the risk for dementia.
Once dementia has begun, exercise may slow its progress.
Phone a Friend
Staying socially engaged helps keep your brain young. And
pastimes that combine mental, physical, and social activity may be especially
protective against dementia. So hanging out with your friends is good. But hanging
out at a cardio class where you’re working up a sweat while memorizing a complex
routine is even better.
Order the Salmon
really is brain food, based on a study presented at the 2011 meeting of the
Radiological Society of North America. Brain scans showed that people who ate
baked or broiled—but not fried—fish at least once a week had better preserved
gray matter in key areas of the brain. The researchers calculated that eating
fish weekly cut Alzheimer’s risk by almost five-fold.