Researchers say that when they look at brains during autopsies, they often see signs of damage (either plaque associated with Alzheimer’s disease or trouble with blood supply) even when the patient did not suffer from dementia.
Because of that, they theorize that these people have “cognitive reserve”—meaning their brains have enough extra capacity to stay sharp despite physical damage.
The Lancet Commission report emphasizes the association between lack of formal schooling and dementia, which suggests that what happens to us early in life can build this reserve: People with higher socioeconomic status during early childhood are less likely to develop dementia, and people who go to school at least through the secondary level are also better off.
“This points to the fact that brain health and, really, overall health is a lifelong commitment—it’s even something we should be thinking about with prenatal care,” Carrillo says.
But, she adds, that doesn’t mean you can’t continue protecting your cognitive health once you’ve grown up.
“There’s not anything you can do about your childhood education, but there is something you can do about making sure that you’re staying mentally active, that you challenge your brain, that you find ways to stay socially active.”
Although there isn’t proof that hearing loss causes cognitive decline, studies show that those who suffer from it (and there are lots of us—it’s a problem in more than 30 percent of people over age 55) will have higher rates of dementia eventually, according to the Lancet Commission report.
“We know that it’s important for people who are experiencing hearing loss to get that checked out and corrected whenever possible because it can contribute to cognitive decline as you age,” Carrillo says.
Plus, as baby boomers hit retirement age, hearing aids are improving rapidly—they’re smaller and work better than your grandfather’s did, according to a recent Scientific American article.
Do visitors casually mention that your TV is blaring? Do you keep asking people to repeat themselves? You’re not alone.
4. Don’t skimp on sleep
Sleeping less than five hours a night—or more than ten—seems to raise your risk of dementia and an early death, according to a 2018 report in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
If you snore a lot or don’t feel rested after a full night’s sleep, you should get tested for sleep apnea, an airway condition in which you stop breathing briefly throughout the night.
Treatment can make a big difference in the quality of your sleep.
If you suffer from insomnia that lasts longer than a few days or weeks at a time, a sleep specialist might be able to help you figure out how to overcome it. If you just don’t get to bed early enough for a full night’s sleep before your early-morning workout, rethink your priorities for the sake of your brain health.
It’s old news that cardiovascular health is really important for brain health, but preliminary results of a study announced in the summer of 2018 give extra weight to the importance of managing hypertension.
Subjects whose blood pressure was kept low—below the systolic (top) number of 120 mmHG—were 15 percent less likely to be diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, which is defined as difficulty with problems solving and memory.
“It’s the most definitive study seen to date that maintaining blood pressure at less than 120 for systolic is a positive thing, not only for your heart but also for brain health,” Carrillo says.
A 2017 study published in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia analyzed medical records of more than one million adults and determined that those with a larger body mass index in middle age were more likely to develop dementia decades later. Maintaining a healthy weight—especially starting in midlife—will help protect the brain.
The relationship between depression and dementia is a tricky one – depression can be a symptom of dementia, as well.
But studies suggest that there’s a link between the number of episodes of depression a person suffers and his or her dementia risk, the Lancet Commission finds, so you should always seek treatment no matter how old you are.
Even if depression only appears after a person is showing signs of dementia, the mood disorder should still be treated, according to the Alzheimer’s Association; it will improve the patient’s quality of life.
Evidence is growing that essential oils can help fight a variety of ailments – including depression.
9. Keep moving
Carrillo goes to the gym every day at 5 a.m.
“We don’t know what the heck is in store for us,” she says.
“The healthier your body and brain can be, the more you may be able to withstand or delay the symptoms of cognitive decline that could lead to mild cognitive impairment, and that could lead to a type of dementia, including Alzheimer’s.”
The Lancet Commission reports that high levels of exercise appear to be more protective than lower levels, but any amount is helpful.