Five ways to reduce your risk of brain disease

See how enjoyable activities, like a trip to the beach, can protect your brain health over the decades.

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Woman on bicycle on beach1. Protect your heart
Experts agree there’s a significant link between heart and brain health. “High cholesterol is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s, and hypertension can block small arteries in the brain, potentially causing damage in areas that are most vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr. Sandra E. Black, neurology chair in the department of medicine at Sunnybrook Hospital and the University of Toronto. New research in the Journal of the American Heart Association has even found that heart disease puts post-menopausal women at a 29 percent higher risk of dementia.

Fight back: Get your blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked regularly, and maintain a healthy waist size (less than 35 inches) and body mass index (BMI numbers of 25 and higher are associated with an increased risk).

2. Exercise to grow grey matter
A study in the journal Archives of Neurology found that obesity can double your risk of developing dementia.

Fight back: Exercise for at least 30 minutes three or four days a week. “Studies show exercise is the most practical way to improve age-related declines in cognition,” says Marc Poulin, a professor of medicine and kinesiology at the University of Calgary. Here’s why: After age 50 our brains begin shrinking by about 0.5 percent every year. A lot of this cell loss happens in the hippocampus. But the hippocampus is also the only area of the brain able to grow new neurons, and exercise revs up this process. Getting your heart rate up sets off a brain-boosting chain reaction, says Dr. Majid Fotuhi, chief medical officer at NeurExpand Brain Centers in Maryland. Increased blood flow means better connections between nerve cells and improved cell function. It also encourages the secretion of nerve growth factor, which assists with cell repair and growth. Best of all, you can whip your hippocampus into shape in just three months. “My patients regain an average of 2 to 4 percent brain loss in 90 days with exercise,” says Fotuhi.

3. Shut down stress
One key area of new research is looking at the role that stress (and the stress hormone cortisol) plays in women’s risk of Alzheimer’s. Stress accelerates the aging of telomeres, the ends of chromosomes that naturally get shorter as we age, increasing our risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Fight back: Managing stress could be the key to keeping your brain healthy. That could mean a nightly cup of tea, a weekly yoga class or a yearly beach vacation, whatever chills you out most. Experts don’t fully understand the mechanisms involved, but studies have shown that daily meditation encourages cell growth in the hippocampus and may stave off dementia. Start with the 7-7-7 breath: Breathe in for seven seconds, hold it for another seven, then exhale for a final seven seconds. Repeat seven times.

4. Eat like a Greek
Studies show diabetes is associated with a 47 percent increased risk of dementia. Eating too many fatty, salty and sugary foods significantly increases your risk of type 2 diabetes, which can damage blood cells in the brain.

Fight back: Choose foods low in saturated fat and eat more whole grains, legumes, vegetables and fruit. A new study in Annals of Internal Medicine found switching to a Mediterranean diet (featuring extra-virgin olive oil, fruit, fish, whole grains and veggies) was enough to reduce diabetes risk by about 40 percent.

5. Sleep for stronger memories
During sleep, cell renewal and DNA repair occurs, and what we experienced during the day is processed and stored away in our brains. Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in Missouri have also discovered that people who wake up more than five times per hour during the night are more likely to develop amyloid plaque buildup in the brain, a sign of Alzheimer’s.

Fight back: Adopt healthy sleep habits (regular bedtime, dark room and no screens an hour before you turn in). And if you want to commit something to memory, sleep on it. Researchers at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, studied 207 students and found those who went to sleep shortly after learning new material were better able to recall the information later on.

Click here for more on how to maintain optimal brain health.