Alzheimer’s disease kills more Americans than breast and prostate cancer combined, currently affecting more than 5 million older Americans. It is irreversible and progressive and is the primary cause of dementia, the gradual loss of the ability to think, remember and reason.
“Alzheimer’s is, for the most part, a disease of age,” says Dr. Dara Schwartz, a clinical psychologist affiliated with Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. “The longer you live, the higher your likelihood of developing the disease. While there is no definitive prevention strategy, if we can live a healthier life and ward off some of the diseases and lifestyle choices that increase the likelihood, the better off we will be.”
Dr. Schwartz says that taking care of your brain is just as important as taking care of your body. Brain health should be viewed like circuit training — your brain does many things, including helping you remember, concentrate, pay attention, problem solve, navigate, talk, listen and more — so the best way to take care of your brain is to ensure that you are “working out” all of those areas.
“You don’t need to join an expensive program to stimulate your brain,” she says. “Some planning, creativity and a trip to the dollar store is all you need. I tell patients to set a schedule and make sure you are engaging in all of the activities your brain performs.”
Dr. Schwartz offers the following tips to keep your brain working:
- Set time to talk to a friend
- Put aside time for reading
- Go to the dollar store and pick up some word searches, puzzles and even maze books to keep your navigation skills in check
- If you have a relationship with a school-aged child — perhaps a grandchild or neighbor — do homework with them, do some light math problems, get out the art supplies and draw something together
“The trick is to use that big beautiful brain of yours in all the many ways it was designed to be used,” she says. “And the most important tip to maintain brain health just might be to stay connected and be part of a community. The human brain thrives on connection — for talking, listening, eye gazing — the more we can do those things and stay connected with others the better.”
Furthermore, according to the National Institute on Aging, there is a possible relationship between cognitive decline and conditions such as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. Reducing risk factors for these conditions, through appropriate medical care and lifestyle choices, such eating a nutritious diet and regular physical activity, may also reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.
“You’re never too young to start paying attention to your brain health, and it’s never too late to make changes to improve your health and quality of life,” Dr. Schwartz says. “The old adage that ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ is wrong — you absolutely can. Older adults are learning everything from musical instruments, languages and how to work a cellphone well into their 90s.”
Learn more about Sharp’s dementia screenings and classes on brain health and mental stimulation in partnership with Alzheimer’s San Diego.