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Prevent Cognitive Decline with 3 Simple Habits

It happens to all of us - searching for the right word, misplacing the car keys, forgetting what you went into the kitchen for. Call it brain fog or a senior moment. But the older we get, the more of those moments we experience.

It’s normal to forget things now and then. But like every other part of the body, brain function and mental acuity is affected by aging. From brain fog to dementia to Alzheimer’s disease, scientists and laypersons alike have long puzzled over cognitive decline and how we can treat or prevent it.

In ancient times, dementia was believed to be an inevitable part of aging. Later, people thought it was a punishment from God for sin. Today, it’s mostly blamed on Alzheimer’s disease. Experts still don’t know exactly what causes Alzheimer’s, but in the early 1990s we began to understand how a build-up of toxins such as tau proteins and beta-amyloid plaques in the brain correlate to the aging process and cognitive decline. Still, we have not found a reliable drug to prevent and treat dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

But the research continues, and recent studies indicate that we have more control over our cognitive health than we once thought. In fact, researchers have projected that almost a third of the cases of Alzheimer’s disease worldwide (9.6 million) could be prevented by things that are within our power to change. And we can give ourselves a big advantage by starting in our 50s and 60s - before we start to see the signs.

The Heart-Brain Connection

Factors such as heart health, sleep quality, stress management, and physical activity are emerging as potential ways to help prevent and slow cognitive decline. Of these factors, heart health seems to be the most important. According to a study published in the journal Hypertension, if every middle-aged American with high blood pressure got properly treated for it, about 25% of dementia cases would be wiped out.

The link between the heart and the brain makes sense when you understand that the brain is fueled by the heart. Because neurons require a lot of oxygen to fire and communicate, the brain uses 20% of the blood pumped by the heart. Anything that impacts blood flow also impacts the brain. When the blood vessels are blocked or the flow is slow, the neurons are starved for oxygen.

Since dementia begins to set up shop in the brain years – sometimes decades – before a diagnosis, scientists are attacking cognitive health from a different perspective: improve the health of the heart and you improve the health of the brain. While lifestyle changes won’t cure Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, they may be the most effective prevention we know of right now.

No matter your age, here are 3 simple lifestyle habits that will prevent cognitive decline and build a healthy heart and body along the way.

Physical Activity

Move the body and the brain will follow. Our bodies and minds are interconnected in ways we may not realize. Moving more doesn’t require going to the gym every day or at all. It’s more a matter of intentionally incorporating movement into our daily lives. Aerobic exercise has a huge impact on neurogenesis (growing new brain cells).

In fact, our brains actually reduce capacity when we’re more inactive, removing cells from areas like the hippocampus. When we stay still for extended periods of time, our cognitive and emotional abilities become seriously compromised. Even for folks who haven’t been physically active for years, it’s never too late to start. New research presented at the 2016 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference showed that even sedentary elderly people with mild cognitive impairment improved their cognitive health by increasing their physical activity.

Eating Habits

Evidence shows that a healthy diet combined with time-restricted eating or intermittent fasting facilitates neurogenesis and neural connectivity. The vast majority of Americans eat far more than the body needs. There is a wealth of research proving that healthy eating habits are the primary pathway to physical health. Now we know that what you eat and when you eat it also impacts your cognitive health.

Twenty-four water-only fasts once a month have been proven to increase longevity and encourage brain cell growth. Reducing refined sugar reduces oxidative damage to brain cells which has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease. In rodent studies, intermittent fasting has been found to improve cognitive function and brain structure.

If you’ve never tried intermittent fasting, you may be surprised at how quickly your body adapts. The 8/16 plan (an 8-hour eating window paired with a 16-hour fasting window) is the easiest for most people to follow and generally yields the most benefits.

Sleep Patterns

Scientists have discovered a great deal about the restorative function of sleep. People who are sleep-deprived experience memory deficits, impaired reasoning, and a lack of concentration. In extreme cases, research proves that it impacts IQ.

Our neural “housekeepers” (the glymphatic system) that flush out the build-up of age-related toxins such the tau proteins and beta amyloid plaques mentioned above are only able to do their job during deep sleep. This is when the interstitial spaces in the brain expand and allow the glial cells to clear these neurotoxins away.

As we age, we build up more toxins and the glymphatic system needs more time to flush them out. Thus, having consistent sleep times and making sure you’re getting sufficient quality and length of sleep supports brain resilience over time.


The bottom line: We have more control over our cognitive health than we once thought. Pick one of these habits and commit to making it part of your routine. What’s the worst that can happen? You’ll be healthier, stronger, and more motivated to enjoy life longer!

Do you know someone who could use a little good news about how to help their aging brain? We all do, right? How nice it would be for them to know that there are some very simply lifestyle changes that will make a big difference! So, go on... share the good news!


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