Three Life Strategies to Prevent Dementia

Improving brain health is becoming as important as preventing heart disease. Actuality your vascular health affects your brain health. However, there is much you can do to keep your brain fully functioning. Recently, I went to a class on improving brain health, and I learned that three things will safeguard your brain against declining with age: novelty, challenge and learning. When you create a lifestyle that includes all three, your brain will step up its efforts to grow, not deteriorate.

Dementia affects memory, thinking and behavior. It is a chronic progressive disease with a high prevalence in the elderly. Today, an estimated 5.5 million Americans of all ages have Alzheimer’s disease, one form of dementia (www.alz.org/facts). An estimated 5.3 million are age 65 and older (one in 10). In 2015, an estimated 47 million people worldwide were living with some form of dementia, according to the World Health Organization.

In order to take charge of your brain health, be sure you include novelty, challenge and learning in your activities. It is not enough to do crossword puzzles or play cards to exercise your brain. Mix it up with other activities, such as, visiting a new place, meeting new people, learning a new hobby, taking a course, driving to a place a different way, and so much more. Challenge your brain to create new neural pathways. Diversity is king!

My recent trip to Prague, Vienna and Budapest in Europe met the criteria for all three of these elements. I had a fabulous time and exercised my brain too!

Novelty: My husband and I visited these cities on our own without a tour guide. I did some research before we left about things to do, but through trial and error, a map of each city, and booked reservations through a concierge, we visited historical sites, found restaurants, ate delicious new foods, and went to concerts and museums. A few blocks from our hotel, my husband spotted a sign for a raw food vegetarian restaurant. It was hidden in a courtyard, and the food was delightful.

Challenge: The entire trip was a challenge for two “elderly” people traveling on their own. Some of the highlights: We missed our connecting flight to Prague from Amsterdam and had a 10 hour layover. With only a few hours of sleep, we solved the problem by getting a hotel room at the airport and sleeping for five hours. We arrived in Prague feeling refreshed instead of drained. We took trains between cities with our luggage. We rode trolleys, buses and subways—I hope my brain was happy with all of the challenge that provided. (I am very thankful that most people speak English in the cities.

Learning: We had to learn three different currencies; each country had its own money. We taught ourselves to follow city maps; learned new words; and learned about the history of the people and their culture. On a subtle note, I even learned that music is the great unifier. I felt at home listening to great music with people from other countries on foreign soil. At a small (100 people) Gershwin and Broadway show tunes concert, I felt as though I could be in the US.

Whether you are taking a trip or staying close to home this summer, do things that will bring you joy as well as improve your brain health. The key is to 1) do something that is new and different – novelty; 2) requires you to think and act outside of your comfort zone – challenge; and 3) process information that teaches you something new – learning. One activity, like playing bridge or visiting a new place, can incorporate all three elements.

Research continues to support that your lifestyle not only improves your health, but also may prevent your brain from developing some form of dementia. The good news: You are already doing all of the three things mentioned above. Now that you understand how they benefit your brain, do more of them. Your quality of life as you age is connected to the choices you are making today. Awareness and mindfulness pay off!

To live well longer, be mindful of how you are using your brain and continually stretch it by becoming a life-long adventurer and learner.

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