Changing the Future of All Minds

Trying to keep your mind in tip-top shape? An expert tells us how you can fight brain decline by living an active and engaged life.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than five million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s. By 2050, that number could rise as high as 16 million. While most people associate brain decline with aging, from those classic “senior moments” to more severe memory loss from diseases like Alzheimer’s, recent research studies reveal that younger people also need to pay attention to brain health.

María P. Aranda, associate professor in the Department of Adult Mental Health and Wellness at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and executive director of the USC Edward R. Roybal Institute on Aging, has suggestions on how making a few simple lifestyle adjustments can improve brain health for anyone — at any age.

When Do We Need to Start Worrying about Brain Health?

Recent studies have shown that brain changes occur much sooner than experts once believed. We used to think that brain changes began as we entered our sixties, but now we know that changes — such as decreases in the volume of grey matter in the prefrontal cortex region of the brain — begin to occur in our early 20s.

“That doesn’t mean that a person in their 20s who experiences decreases in grey matter is going to suffer from a neurocognitive illness such as Alzheimer’s,” Aranda said. “We know that’s not true. But we do know that brain volume peaks in the early 20s and gradually declines thereafter, most notably in the prefrontal cortex region which controls brain functions such as planning, paying attention, and getting organized.”

Although brain changes begin earlier than many people might realize, there are ways to postpone their onset. “The brain is a remarkable organ,” she said. “It’s able to learn new things, to rely on experience and to remember pieces of core knowledge that are needed in order to perform basic functions.”

Hoping to maintain the health of your brain well into old age? There is no time like the present. Follow Aranda’s tips for improving brain functioning, whether you’re in your 20s or your 70s.

Live Healthy
Just as living a healthy lifestyle can reduce cardiovascular risk and other health concerns, it can also benefit the brain. “What’s good for your heart and your muscles is good for your brain,” Aranda said.

Dietary changes can play a role in improving or maintaining brain health. Aranda recommends the tried-and-true staples of many healthy diets, including fresh fish, vegetables and whole grains, and advocates for consuming less red meat and alcohol. Aranda also recommends engaging regularly in at least moderate physical activity.

“People who not only maintain a healthy weight but are able to exercise regularly are less likely to be affected by things like mild cognitive impairment or neurocognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease,” she said.

Get Out More
Brain health can be heavily influenced by your surroundings — especially the people and communities you engage with. “If we look at people who maintain social engagement early in life and continue that pattern throughout their later years, they are more likely to maintain brain function and brain vitality,” Aranda said.

For older adults, Aranda recommends spending time with friends and family, joining social groups and organizations and engaging in social outlets — hopefully while taking part in cognitively stimulating activities. Making a purposeful effort to be social keeps your brain active and reduces the risk of decline.

Work Hard
Brain health begins as early as childhood, with regular schooling and intellectual challenges that stimulate the brain. Research shows a more than 10 percent reduced dementia risk for those who engage in high levels of analyzing, reasoning and mathematical thinking.

But don’t feel like you have to pick that AP Calculus book back up. Adults can improve cognitive functioning by seeking new challenges in the workplace, learning new skills or hobbies and pursuing continuing education opportunities.

Stress Less
Although cognitively stimulating and challenging work can keep brain decline at bay, the chronic stress associated with it can detract from these benefits. Chronic stress can affect cognitive functioning, so learning how to effectively manage the stressors of daily life is crucial to brain health.

This is because chronic stress in combination with other factors can lead to other mental disorders such as depression, and studies show that depression may increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Aranda says more research is needed to tease out what accounts for this increased risk. We do know that people who are depressed tend to withdraw from activities that keep the brain healthy such as exercising, eating nutritiously and socializing.

Take Care of Yourself
Overall self-care contributes to a healthy lifestyle, but it is also an important part of brain health. Visit your doctor regularly to manage any chronic health conditions, and be particularly careful to avoid injuries or falls that could cause head trauma or brain damage.

And last but not least: prioritize sleep. “Just think of what happens to us when we don’t get enough sleep,” Aranda said. “We have trouble remembering things, and our attention span and concentration suffers. Getting a full night’s sleep helps our brains to function at their fullest capacity.”

*This article first appeared on news.usc.edu.

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