6 steps you can take to avoid being another mental health statistic

Article at a glance
  • As human life expectancy has increased over time, so has the observance of age-related cognitive decline.
  • Cognitive decline and cognitive disease could have significant impacts on our society as dementia is one of the major causes of disability in older people, and the proportions of older individuals in the population are growing worldwide.
  • While there is no scientifically proven prevention or cure for Alzheimer’s Disease and other cognitive diseases, there are several modifiable lifestyle factors that could support healthy brain aging and reduce risk of these diseases.
  • Adding in aerobic exercise, getting adequate sleep, obtaining mental stimulation, nurturing social interactions, seeking mental support, and eating a healthy diet high in Omega-3 fatty acids can provide several long-term benefits including lower risk of age-related cognitive decline and disease.

With modern day medicine we are living longer, but are we living better? The prevalence of age-related health problems is becoming an important public health concern as the proportions of older individuals are growing worldwide. Cognitive impairment and dementia are increasing globally and the World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that there are an estimated 35.6 million people currently living with dementia and that the number will nearly double every 20 years, reaching 115.4 million by 2050. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that in America alone 5.1 million people aged 65 years or older may currently have Alzheimer’s disease, the most well-known form of cognitive impairment, and this number is predicted to rise to 13.2 million by 2050 with the ageing of the Baby Boomer generation.

As the life expectancy of the population has increased, so too has the prevalence of cognitive decline. If you are lucky enough to reach 85 years of age in the United States, there is a 50% chance that you will be affected by Alzheimer’s disease. What can we do to avoid being one of these statistics?

Feed Your Brain

Adherence to a healthy diet is imperative in improving cognitive performance and reducing risk of cognitive decline over time. The Mediterranean diet has been studied for years and is considered one of the best dietary models for brain health and longevity. Research has determined that adhering to a Mediterranean diet can reduce risk for Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and Mild Cognitive Impairment.

Another diet that was originally used to treat pediatric epilepsy, the Ketogenic Diet (KD), is now showing promise of neuroprotection in other central nervous system disorders. While limited in numbers, the scientific evidence collected from clinical studies in humans has supported KD therapy for use in adult epilepsy, adult malignant glioma, and AD.

What’s the one thing both of these diets have in common? They are both high in Omega-3 fatty acids. These influential nutrients have been proven by science to reduce age related decay of brain mass and function, promote brain function of healthy brains, and attenuate brain damage after injury. Omega- fatty acids can be found in high amounts in fatty fish or marine algae and are a must for long term cognitive health.

Move Daily

Exercise is another way to support strong brains at every stage of life and aerobic exercise, specifically, has emerged as a low cost and accessible treatment to improve cognitive outcomes. Exercise has been found to display healing effects on the brain such as counteracting the mental decline associated with age, and facilitating brain recovery after injury and disease. One study found that natural hippocampal deterioration can be reversed with aerobic exercise intervention. In this study an aerobic exercise group that trained 3 days/week experienced an increase in the size of the hippocampus by close to 2% over a year. Adding this 2% with aerobic training is equivalent to adding 1-2 years’ worth of volume back to the hippocampus!

Aerobic exercise may have positive effects on the brain by increasing functional connectivity and activation, increasing cerebral blood volume, and increasing gray and white matter of the pre frontal cortex, which plays a significant role in memory, intelligence, and language. With improvements in cognitive structure that come from aerobic exercise, comes improvements in cognitive function.

Prioritize Those Zzzzs

Many of us know the recommended amount of sleep of 7-8 hours per night is important, but too few of us actually sleep this long. Why is this so important? A 2013 study that came out of the University of Rochester found that sleep is the time that the brain removes toxins that accumulate during wakeful hours and that can contribute to brain disorders such as AD. In other words, sleep is a time for “taking out the brain trash”. Losing just one night of sleep can lead to an increase in beta-amyloid, a brain trash protein associated with impaired brain function and Alzheimer’s Disease. These results suggest that chronic sleep deprivation may increase the risk for beta-amyloid build-up and long-term cognitive decline. Sleep must be a priority if your long term brain health is.

Maintain Your Mental Reps

You cannot stop exercising your biceps after age 50 and expect them to stay strong for a lifetime. This stands true for your brain as well. Keeping the mind engaged will help keep the mind strong. Research has demonstrated that more years of education is correlated with lower risk for AD, with risk for AD being two to four times higher in those having fewer years of education compared to those who have more years of education. Don’t worry though, no need for more student debt, it does not have to be formal education. Longitudinal studies have found that older adults without dementia who participate in daily intellectual activities, such as puzzles, show less cognitive decline over time. Neurobiology studies also support this theory and have observed positive physiological changes in the brain of older adults after memory training compared to controls. Stay engaged through mentally stimulating games, continued education, language training, and new challenges to keep your brain muscles toned and able.

Nurture Social Connections

Bump up girl’s night on your priority list! Social relationships, both quantity and quality, have been found to affect mental and physical health. In one large community based study of older adults who were dementia free at the start, it was observed that adults who were the most socially active (in the 90th quartile) experienced only one quarter of the rate of cognitive decline experienced by the least socially active (in the 10th quartile) individuals. In another study it was found that high levels of social integration predicted a significantly slower rate of memory decline in adults over the age of 50 spanning a 6 year period. Some of the longest living communities in the world meet daily with close friend groups to laugh, socialize, and support one another. A night spent with some friends is a night well spent.

Mental Fitness and Support

We seek personal trainers when we want to support our physical fitness. We seek Medical Doctors when we want support with our physical health. We must to seek Mental Health Professionals when we want support with our mental health. When needed, treatments have been developed and tested to successfully reduce symptoms for many cognitive health concerns. Consumer reports published an article that concluded that majority of people benefited substantially from psychotherapy, and that long term treatment did considerably better than short term treatment. If you need some help, just ask.

Many aspects of our health are in our control. In fact, research shows that for most leading causes of death that our genes often account for only 10-20% of risk at most. Are you living a lifestyle that will support a strong brain to avoid being one of the growing mental health statistics?