Americans fear Alzheimer’s disease more than cancer, stroke, and heart disease combined, according to a survey conducted by the Milken Institute. While the risks of Alzheimer’s are well known, what’s lesser known is that many seniors experience mild cognitive decline or other forms of dementia in their 80s and beyond; these conditions often impair their quality of life and decision-making ability. For example, the American Academy of Neurology estimates that one out of four people aged 80 to 84 have some form of mild cognitive impairment; that number rises to more than one in three people aged 85 and older.
Many of today’s pre-retirees and retirees have experienced the heartbreak and financial disruptions of these conditions through their aging parents. If this describes you, perhaps it served as a wake-up call that you or one of your loved ones might experience some form of dementia in your later years. But instead of being paralyzed by fear, why not channel any concerns you’re having into motivation to take steps to prevent, mitigate, or delay these conditions?
While there are no known cures or vaccines for Alzheimer’s, most forms of dementia, and mild cognitive impairment, there are lifestyle choices you can make that have the potential to delay, mitigate, or even prevent some forms of dementia and cognitive impairment. The good thing is, these actions also have the potential to improve your health and enrich your life. Let’s look at six strategies you can consider adopting with these goals in mind.
1. Exercise. Research has demonstrated that exercise is associated with a reduced risk of various forms of dementia. While there is some debate about the most effective types of exercise, the best exercise is something you enjoy and will sustain indefinitely. Better still is exercise that brings you social interactions, another possible protection against dementia.
2. Work or volunteer. There’s some debate in the scientific community about whether working is protective or detrimental to your mental health. The answer might be something your grandma could have told you—work you enjoy that is stimulating and brings social contacts might be protective, while work that’s stressful or physically unhealthy could be detrimental to your mental health. If you need the money, the extra income can help reduce your stress and improve your mental health in the process.
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3. Be heart healthy. Research suggests that controlling high blood pressure and cholesterol levels can reduce your risk of dementia as well the risk of heart disease and stroke.
4. Adopt healthy habits. Most likely you’ve heard about the benefits of eating a nutritious and balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight, getting sufficient sleep, avoiding smoking, and not abusing alcohol or substances. You can add “reduces the risk of dementia” as another good reason to practice these healthy habits.
5. Pursue an active social life and stimulating activities. Research has found that enjoying a supportive network of family and friends can be protective against dementia. Similarly, pursuing activities, hobbies, or travel that stimulate your mind can also be protective. Playing a musical instrument and social dancing might also help reduce the risk of dementia; at the very least, these activities are enjoyable and enriching.
6. Adopt a regular practice of deep focus. Adopting a regular practice of yoga, tai chi, chi gung, or meditation can help reduce stress and improve cognitive functioning.
One word of caution: You might see claims that vitamins or supplements can help reduce the risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s. Evidence for such claims is mixed at best, so you’ll want to consult your health advisor before spending any money on vitamins and supplements.
Given the potentially serious consequences of Alzheimer’s and dementia, it makes sense to adopt as many of these strategies today as your time allows—well before any symptoms may appear. It also makes sense to think ahead and adopt strategies that can accommodate these conditions in case they happen to you in spite of your best efforts.
While none of the above strategies can guarantee that you won’t get Alzheimer’s or dementia, they all have the potential to improve your life, with no harmful side effects. So go ahead, work up a sweat, kick up your heels, toot your horn, and go have some fun!