4 strategies for brain health

By Alistair Gardiner
Published December 2, 2020

Key Takeaways

It is estimated that there are roughly 50 million people around the globe living with dementia. This comes with a $1 trillion cost, shouldered by economies around the world, as well as those affected by the disease, according to a recent report in The Lancet. What’s worse, the number of people with dementia is expected to increase to 152 million worldwide by 2050.

Dementia is not a natural part of the aging process. In some cases, the causes of dementia are genetic—but there is growing scientific evidence that healthy behaviors already shown to prevent diabetes, cancer, and heart disease may also reduce risk for memory loss. 

The Alzheimer’s Association’s 2020 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report cites evidence that regular exercise and management of cardiovascular risk factors (particularly diabetes, smoking, obesity, and hypertension) may reduce risk of cognitive decline and dementia—along with a healthy diet, lifelong learning, and cognitive training.

According to the 2020 Lancet Commission, there are now 12 potentially modifiable risk factors for dementia: less education, hypertension, hearing impairment, smoking, obesity, depression, physical inactivity, diabetes, low social contact, excessive alcohol consumption, traumatic brain injury, and air pollution. “Together the 12 modifiable risk factors account for around 40% of worldwide dementias, which consequently could theoretically be prevented or delayed,” the report authors stated. 

While there is no way to definitively prevent the development of dementia, it makes sense to adopt certain lifestyle changes to reduce the risk factors. But what can you do besides watch your diet, exercise, and avoid smoking? 

Here’s a look at four lesser-known strategies that you can employ to help reduce your chances of developing dementia. 

Play chess

The brain of a patient with Alzheimer disease features prominent buildup of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. The accumulation of these proteins disrupts normal neuron communication, negatively impacts cell metabolism, and reduces the ability to repair and regenerate brain cells.

According to research, one of the ways to fight this is by playing brain-stimulating games like chess. A  review of 21 studies and research articles, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, concluded that regular chess sessions could lead to the delay or even prevention of dementia in people not yet diagnosed. The review’s authors could not draw any conclusions on the impacts of chess on those already living with dementia, however, some of the studies they reviewed suggested that the cognitive functions associated with the game may be effective as a protective measure.

One of the studies reviewed, for example, looked at 500 individuals over a 5-year period and found that those over 75 years of age who engaged in leisure activities (including reading, playing board games, playing musical instruments, and dancing) may have delayed the symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer disease by an average of 1.5 years. Overall, the researchers found that those who regularly played board games were over 35% less likely to develop dementia than those who participated in board games only occasionally or rarely. 

Researchers found that the complex brain functions required by chess specifically make it a beneficial activity with regard to prevention of or protection from dementia. Playing chess stimulates certain parts of the brain, and this stimulation shifts as the player is forced to solve problems that arise.

The features of Alzheimer disease are most pronounced in brain areas involved in learning, memory, emotion, judgment, abstraction, language, and executive functions. As such, the researchers hypothesized that activities like chess, which make use of most or all of these functions, could be protective against the development of the disease. Some follow-up studies appear to confirm this, with one finding that those who engage in high-level mental activities had a 33% lower risk of developing Alzheimer disease. 

While further research is required, playing chess appears to be a protective factor for dementia due to its cognitive benefits. So grab a board, find a buddy to play with, and start planning your first checkmate.

Learn something new

Research indicates that those with a higher level of education have a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer disease, according to The Lancet report. 

While this has been found in both subjects who had a substantial education during childhood years and those who continue with educational attainment throughout their lives, researchers have found that the brain reaches greatest plasticity (the ability to rewire itself or create new neurological connections) sometime during late adolescence. This suggests that the cognitive stimulation for dementia prevention may be most effective early in life. However, some research has shown that stimulating your brain at any stage appears to be associated with a reduced risk of developing dementia.

One large study conducted in China found that people over the age of 65 who engaged in activities related to learning—like reading and mental games—had a reduced risk of dementia. Other studies concluded that activities like playing music or speaking a second language during midlife were associated with maintaining cognition, regardless of education, occupation, later-life activities, and structural brain health.

Bottom line: It’s never too late to grab a book and start working on that second language you’ve been talking about for years.

Be social

Of the 2020 Lancet Commission’s 12 modifiable risk factors for dementia, this one may surprise you: social contact. Various studies have shown that, among leisure activities, meeting friends or engaging socially in some other way is associated with a reduced risk of dementia. 

While some believe that social isolation may simply be a symptom of early-onset dementia, other researchers conclude that social contact may enhance cognitive reserve.  

One review, for example, looked at more than 812,000 individuals across the globe and found dementia risk to be elevated in those who were unmarried or widowed. The researchers concluded that the heightened levels of interpersonal contact that married people experience is a factor in their relative lack of cognitive decline. Likewise, a 28-year study of more than 10,000 subjects in the United Kingdom found that more frequent social contact in people aged 60 years or older was associated with lower dementia risk over the next 15 years of their lives.

While further research is required in this area, study after study indicates that socializing can lead to improved cognitive function, increased brain volume, and an overall reduced likelihood of developing dementia.

Drink, but only in moderation

This one may be particularly surprising, given that health professionals generally advise against drinking alcohol if you’re looking to keep your brain healthy. However, while the evidence is somewhat conflicting, research has emerged to suggest that drinking a little may help reduce your risk of developing dementia, compared with drinking a lot or even not drinking at all.

One review of 28 articles and studies published between 2000 and 2017 found that light to moderate alcohol intake in mid-to-late adulthood was associated with a decreased risk of cognitive impairment and dementia. While the researchers concluded that reducing levels of heavy drinking is likely an effective dementia prevention strategy and couldn’t establish causality between light drinking and a reduced risk of cognitive decline, this is not the only study which has found that drinking a little may help protect against dementia. 

A study published in the BMJ followed more than 9,000 individuals over several decades, monitoring their drinking levels and any development of dementia. The researchers found that the risk of dementia was greater in those who abstained from alcohol in midlife and in those who were heavy drinkers, meaning they drank more than 14 units per week (1 unit equals 10 ml of alcohol). Among the participants, those who drank 1-14 units of alcohol per week were at the lowest risk of dementia. 

So keep this in mind: If you want to avoid dementia, you may want to arrange to meet a friend, blow the dust off that chess board that’s been stowed away, and perhaps pour yourself a glass of wine. Your brain might thank you later.

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