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Boost Your Brain Health

Your lifestyle may affect your Alzheimer's risk

Crossword puzzleDo you have the power to prevent Alzheimer's disease? Although some risk factors — age and family history — are beyond your control, increasing evidence from research indicates that you aren't helpless.

Researchers from the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center and around the world have found that certain lifestyle choices can protect your brain against the onset of Alzheimer's disease. Incorporate the following activities into your life, and your brain could reap the benefits.

Move your body

David Bennett, MD, director of the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center, runs or bikes daily. Why? "It keeps my body and brain in shape," Bennett says. Research shows that long-term physical activity may offer one of the best protective effects against dementia.

And moderate exercise can reduce the risk of developing diseases that have been associated with the development of dementia, such as cardiovascular disease, midlife obesity and type-2 diabetes. Here are some exercise tips to help boost your brain power:

  • Maintain a regular exercise regimen
  • Perform moderate physical activity 30 minutes a day, at least five times a week
  • Incorporate aerobic exercise into your routine (e.g., jogging, swimming, riding a bike)
  • Lift weights or do some other form of strength training

Eat right

A healthy, well-balanced diet is important for your brain health as well as your overall health. Obesity and diabetes are not only risk factors for heart disease and stroke; they're also risk factors for dementia. Research has found that specific foods may promote brain health, including the following:

  • Dark-skinned fruits and vegetables, including those rich in vitamin E (e.g., broccoli, blueberries and spinach) and beta carotene (e.g., spinach, red peppers and sweet potatoes)
  • Fish (baked or broiled, two times a week); those with omega-3 fatty acids provide an additional punch (e.g., salmon, albacore tuna, mackerel)
  • Olive oil, which provides monosaturated fat, a healthy alternative to animal and dairy fats (e.g., butter)
  • Walnuts and pecans, which are rich in antioxidants

Flex your brain

Research from Rush suggests that keeping your brain fit in old age can reduce your risk of Alzheimer's disease and other memory disorders. Flexing your brain may improve your mind's ability to resist damage, possibly by strengthening connections between brain cells. Robert Wilson, PhD, a neuropsychologist and researcher at the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center, recommends the following:

  • Engage in activities that are mentally challenging, such as doing crossword puzzles, playing chess or reading historical books
  • Develop a hobby that mixes mental and social activity, such as participating in a book club or joining a local theater troupe

Have purpose

A recent study from Rush, based on questionnaires and follow-up clinical evaluations, found that people who have a sense of purpose in life are less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease or even mild cognitive impairment. While jobs and family can certainly provide a sense of purpose, so can other activities. Patricia Boyle, PhD, a neuropsychologist and researcher at the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center, offers these suggestions:

  • Set goals and follow through
  • Learn a new language
  • Volunteer

By including all or just some of these elements in your life, you can help your brain and improve your overall health. It's a win-win situation from head to toe.