Your everyday habits can go a long way to help prevent Alzheimer’s, even if you have a family history. Here are five strategies to protect your brain.

By Karen Asp
Updated July 25, 2019

Alzheimer’s is always on my mind. Given that I’m only in my 40s, it might seem too early to worry, but my dad was diagnosed two years ago at age 75. And although a family history doesn’t mean I’ll definitely develop it, I’m not taking any chances. So I went to the experts to boil down what the research says about lowering my risk.

“Lifestyle changes could reduce your chances of developing Alzheimer’s by 90 percent,” says Ayesha Sherzai, M.D., neurologist and co-director of the Brain Health and Alzheimer’s Prevention Program at Loma Linda University in California. Much of what’s involved in reducing that risk is preventing or calming inflammation, which can cause changes in the brain that can lead to Alzheimer’s. “Inflammation in the body produces free radicals, which kill nerve cells,” says Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., professor of neurology at Harvard University. The best news: It’s never too late—or early—to adopt habits that keep your brain healthy. Here are five to start with.

1. Learn a New Skill

Skip the brain games. Learning a new skill is what helps create new synapses (neural connections) that keep your brain functioning well. The more synapses you have, the more you can afford to lose before you, well, lose it. No need to become an expert at crocheting or fluent in French. Any new skill helps—no matter how small. So try learning something that enhances one of your hobbies. For instance, if you play the piano, challenge yourself to learn a new song every week.

2. Walk, Jog, Bike, and Meditate

Exercise, especially aerobic, helps reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by increasing blood flow to the brain, helping improve connections between neurons, and reducing inflammation. “When you’re sedentary, blood flow to the brain is reduced and other chemical processes are induced, which can affect your cognitive functioning,” Sherzai says. Aim for 30- to 60-minute sessions five to six days a week or log at least 8,000 steps per day, Tanzi says. Doing yoga doubles the benefits by combining movement with aspects of meditation, which reduces stress and inflammation.

3. Eat a Plant-Centric Diet

A whole foods, plant-based diet—focused on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, lentils, seeds, and nuts—is high in antioxidants, which reduce inflammation. Even little changes help lower your risk, Sherzai says. A few to try: Replace a meat burger with a veggie burger. Add a serving of beans and greens to one meal daily. Switch from a sandwich to a salad for two or three lunches weekly. Also cut added sugar, which contributes to inflammation. Packaged foods are a big culprit; read labels and choose foods that are low in grams of sugar.

4. Log Enough Sleep and Make It Deep

It’s important to get eight hours of sleep to protect your brain, but quality is as important as quantity. Deep sleep is the key because that’s when the toxins that have developed during the day get cleared out and inflammation is reduced, Tanzi says. How do you know if you’re getting deep sleep? Your body goes through several sleep cycles, including REM (or dream) sleep, which occurs after deep sleep. If you remember having dreams and/or wake up feeling refreshed, you’ve had deep sleep. Set yourself up for good sleep by following basic sleep hygiene strategies: Make your room as dark as possible, don’t work in bed, and stop doing anything stimulating—checking social media, exercising—at least an hour before bed.

Related: The 5 Biggest Myths About Sleep, According to Scientists

5. Enjoy Coffee, Chocolate, and Red Wine

Coffee, red wine, and dark chocolate are high in antioxidants that protect cells against free radicals. So indulge, intelligently. Unless you’re sensitive to caffeine, enjoy three cups of coffee a day. When choosing chocolate, look for at least 70 percent cacao, and stick to 1 ounce a day (about 110 calories). As for red wine, experts advise keeping it to one 5-ounce glass a day.

Related: 24 Healthy Dark Chocolate Recipes to Try Now

Researchers are searching for a cure, and helping with fundraising is one way to help. The Alzheimer’s Association sponsors more than 600 fundraising walks around the country. Enter your ZIP code here to find a walk near you.

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