When a recent Northwestern University study discovered the hallmark Alzheimer’s proteins in the brains of 20 year olds, many wondered: Is brain health a younger person’s concern?
After all, these are the youngest human brains to date in which amyloids, the signature proteins, have been found. And while the majority of people impacted by dementia and Alzheimer’s are older than 65, experts will tell you that taking action now could help prevent damage down the line.
You may have more control than you realize, says Gary Small, M.D., author of Two Weeks to a Younger Brain: “The brain is sensitive to stimulation from moment to moment—if we are engaging certain neural circuits, they strengthen—if we neglect others, we don’t give the brain the opportunity to strengthen,” Small says. “But whether that impacts one’s risk of Alzheimer’s, we just don’t know.”
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What we do know: No matter your age, there is a significant correlation between a healthy diet, regular exercise, not smoking, and having fewer memory complaints. If you’re already living a healthy lifestyle, there’s more you can do to cut your risk and protect your brain, starting with the five habits below.
1. Rewire with meditation
Lower stress levels are intimately connected to an improved cognitive performance. But deep breaths aren’t the only way to get there. “We’ve got studies that show that meditation or tai chi or other kinds of stress-reducing exercises will rewire your brain’s neural circuitry,” says Small.
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2. Meet in person
“With all of the new technology, we’re not communicating face-to-face as much,” says Small. “Even though there is social connection through social media, it’s not as powerful as meeting people in real time and space.” Specifically, there are clear advantages to face-to-face conversation in terms of empathy skills, he says, noting that empathy is linked to strong social communication skills in personal and professional life. Even more: Studies show traditional social connections lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
3. Avoid email benders
If you work a lot on the computer, don’t spend hours on hours answering emails, says Small. “Shake up your tasks. Cross-train your brain. You’ll activate different neural circuits.” There are a lot of upsides to technology — certain programs can improve multitasking and cognitive skills, he says. “Surgeons who play video games make fewer errors in surgery.”
4. Choose mood-boosting exercise
“There’s a lot of evidence that mental stimulation is linked to brain health — but that evidence is not as compelling as physical exercise,” says Small. But which fitness routine is most worthy? There are data showing that strength training and cardiovascular conditioning have benefits for brain health. I suggest both,” says Small.
When it comes to intensity, the jury is still out: One study found that just 90 minutes of brisk walking lowers Alzheimer’s risk; others find that 5 minutes of intense interval training helps. Small’s advice: Check your mood. “Anyone who exercises knows about the endorphin benefits and how exercise improves mood — that’s probably a good measure of whether you’re getting a brain benefit.”
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5. Adjust your omegas ratio
Diet is ever important when it comes to brain health. But beyond controlling portions and eating enough fruits and vegetables, balance your fats. “Too many people eat too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3s,” says Small. Omega-6 is found in meats and vegetable oils, while omega-3s are found in fish, nuts, and flax seed.
By Cassie Shortsleeve