New research has shown that regular physical and mental stimulation can not only help you maintain a sharp mind, but also act as a deterrent against Alzheimer’s disease.
The most common cause of dementia, or loss of intellectual function, among people aged 65 and older is Alzheimer’s disease, which currently affects an estimated 4.2 to 5.8 million Americans. As our population ages, it’s projected that the number of people with the disease could more than triple to 16 million by mid-century. A progressive, degenerative disorder that attacks the brain’s nerve cells (neurons), the condition leads to loss of memory, a decline in thinking and language skills, and mood swings. Currently, no cure exists, but new research continues to show us ways to combat this complicated and devastating disease.
Scientists have recently discovered, for example, that our brains develop about 200 new neurons — and new connections between them — every week. And the more mental reserves people build up, experts believe, the better they can stave off age-related brain diseases. Similar to how muscles atrophy, these new additions must continuously be challenged or they will fail to “connect” to existing neurons. So how do you exercise these nerve cells?
A combination of physical fitness and mental stimulation, it turns out, can go a long way in maintaining cognitive clarity. Exercise has emerged as an extremely effective way to enhance brain health. Studies show that even 30 minutes of brisk walking daily can improve blood flow to the brain, boosting neural growth factors and connectivity. As far as mental calisthenics go, keep your brain challenged daily, even in small ways. Change your routine by driving different routes to and from work, moving furniture around the house and sitting in a different seat at the dinner table. Known as “neurobic” exercises, these activities are designed to help the brain manufacture nutrients that strengthen, preserve and grow brain cells. These mind teasers also help the cells build additional connections to the cerebral cortex.
Other fun and enlightening neurobic exercises might include:
•Showering with your eyes closed
•Brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand
•Closing your eyes while getting dressed
•Wearing earplugs to experience the world without sound
•Turning your pictures or clocks upside down
•Eating by candlelight
•Starting a new hobby
•Learning a new instrument
The dissemination of new research is critical to better understanding Alzheimer’s disease. Many factors affect the way we process information, but by incorporating several elements of cognitive fitness into your life, you can stimulate areas of your brain and prevent debilitating diseases from developing. So interact with others, stay vibrant and constantly challenge your mind. It’s a way of life that is both healthy and fun.
Nancy Squillacioti is the executive director of the Alzheimer’s & Dementia Resource Center in Orlando. Visit www.alzheimerresourcecenter.org for more information.