Dr. Diana Kerwin, who has spent her career researching Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, has good news for you and your brain. “What we’ve learned in the past 10 years is how much lifestyle interventions can really prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s,” says Kerwin, who founded the Kerwin Medical Center in Dallas in 2019. “The data we’ve found probably would surprise people. If you adopt what we know are brain-healthy lifestyle habits, that can decrease or delay the onset. If you’re destined to get it [genetically], the ability to delay the onset with prevention is actually pretty pronounced.” Kerwin and other local experts offer these five lifestyle recommendations for better memory health:
Get some sleep
“If you don’t get enough sleep, your brain can actually look like it’s drunk,” says Jodie Moore, an acute care nurse practitioner at Lone Star Neurology in Dallas. Kerwin explains that two important things happen when we sleep: The brain processes knowledge from the day and transfers it to long-term memory, and there is a physiological cleansing of the brain. “When we sleep, there is a fluid that bathes the brain … and clears some of those toxic species that accumulate in Alzheimer’s.”
Mind your diet
Kerwin also shared research of a study by Rush University on the effects of the MIND diet on Alzheimer’s. MIND is an acronym for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay and is actually a mix of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. MIND is heavy on vegetables, berries and fish, and low on butter, cheese and red meat. The study tracked people over the age of 65 for five years, anticipating a number of them would develop Alzheimer’s during that time. Those who followed the MIND diet strictly had decreased onset by almost 50%, and those who loosely adhered to it, 30% to 40%. “Just that diet change can be very impactful,” Kerwin says.
“It doesn’t really matter what,” says Moore. “It’s about being active and getting oxygen to your brain. Endorphins also help with stress, which is a big factor in memory. Studies show people that have untreated depression/anxiety have brain changes that mimic dementia.” Exercise not only protects your brain from aging, it also promotes the new growth of brain cells. Even just walking a few times a week is beneficial.
According to Pauline Stafford, owner of The Garage gym in Dallas and a certified personal trainer with a master’s degree in social work, “zone 2 exercise” is best for cognition. That means if you walked any faster, you couldn’t talk, which is the level of exercise most beneficial for memory loss prevention.
“Vigorous exercise is wonderful but not necessary for your brain health,” Stafford says. “People who haven’t done anything and start in their 50s are going to see a huge gain. Everybody needs to know that just getting up and walking to the end of the block, that’s two minutes. And that’s where you start. It will matter. Getting up matters.”
Use your brain
Research shows cognitive engagement helps stave off memory issues. According to Kerwin, learning something new, such as a language, or doing a daily crossword puzzle — anything that challenges your brain on a regular basis — can be helpful. “As memory gets worse, people don’t read anymore,” Moore says. “Audiobooks are great, too. Your brain is still working to process, doing the visual imagery, so that’s also stimulation of your brain. Listening to music is good for you and helps with stress relief. The key is finding something that you enjoy.” Socializing is also excellent for cognitive engagement, so treat your brain to coffee with a friend.
Keep up with preventive care
Annual screenings, keeping cholesterol and blood pressure in check, etc., are all ways to reduce your vascular risk, which is key in stroke prevention and boosting memory. The 50s are an important time to get all of this in order. A healthy blood pressure and cholesterol help the brain work at its best.
“Stay active,” Moore says. “It’s all about brain stimulation. If you sit in a room and watch TV all day long, you’re not using your brain. If you don’t do something, you’re going to lose that ability.”
Kerwin’s research currently involves therapeutics to stop or stabilize the onset of Alzheimer’s. Once drugs are developed to help, lifestyle will be still important, she says.
“The thing people worry about losing function [of] the most is [the] brain,” Kerwin says. “They’re searching for that magic bullet and want to go to the memory aisle of the local drugstore to fix everything. I wish more people knew that those lifestyle habits we’ve been telling people about to prevent heart disease can really also significantly decrease the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. So while we’re waiting for those drugs, these lifestyles and interventions can truly make a difference.”
Games that will improve brain health
According to a 2015 study from the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention, people who play games and do puzzles have increased brain health compared to those who don’t.
Puzzles, along with other games, foster new brain connections, stimulate cognitive functions, help with short-term memory and improve visual-spatial reasoning.
Here are four puzzles that experts recommend:
That 1,000-piece puzzle of a castle in Germany isn’t just for pandemics. Old-school puzzles are also excellent brain exercises.
Level up your puzzle game with three-dimensional jigsaw sculptures if you want. Also fun are the hand-cut, 1930s-inspired wooden jigsaw puzzles from Liberty Puzzles, which feature a mix of complex and whimsical shapes (plants, animals, geometric designs) sure to delight any puzzler (libertypuzzles.com).
Speaking of old-school fun, call your friends and ask them for a five-letter word for a public spat (“scene”). You’ll get the benefits from a pen-and-paper crossword or a mobile version.
We all remember the square of seemingly random letters and the joy of finding hidden words. Now there are trendy digital versions like Wordle.
Chess and checkers
Basically, these are puzzles that double as games. They involve strategy, concentration and a friend — all making your gray matter happy.