Plan to Stay Sharp at Any Age
5 minute read
According to the World Alzheimer Report 2022, almost 80% of the general public are concerned about developing dementia. Not surprisingly, evidence also suggests that these fears increase with age. Currently, the lifetime risk for developing Alzheimer’s at age 45 is 1 in 5 for women and 1 in 10 for men. That’s a statistic made more frightening with the realization that today 6 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease and that one in three seniors will die with Alzheimer’s or some other dementia. It’s a particular worry when it comes to finances. According to 2020 Federal Reserve research, the ability to manage your money is one of the first life “functions” to be lost when dementia or related disorders set in.
But according to Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Chief Medical Correspondent for CNN, a practicing neurosurgeon and author of the workbook, 12 Weeks To A Sharper You, not all cognitive decline is inevitable. He notes that there are 75 genes connected to the development of Alzheimer’s, but that having those genes doesn’t mean you’ll either get the disease itself or develop any form of dementia. “If you look at nature versus nurture, your actual genes play a role [of about one-third or maybe a little less] in your likelihood of getting Alzheimer’s . There are a lot of people who have those genes that don’t get Alzheimer’s and people who don’t have those genes who do get Alzheimer’s so it’s a really mixed bag gene.”
WATCH Your Money Map: Plan to Stay Sharp at Any Age
According to 2020 Federal Reserve research, the ability to manage your money is one of the first life functions to be lost when dementia or related disorders set in.
So, where is the in-between? Incorporating a series of healthy habits into your day-to-day life can provide protection for your brain – and it’s health – for the long term. It’s a form of resilience, which Gupta thinks of like this: “We all have challenges in our lives. And there are some people who are just totally crushed by that onslaught of daily events. But frankly, there are other people who are, in a way, strengthened by it. The difference between those two populations of people is brain resilience.” Now, the question is, how do you get there? Gupta has a handful of tactical suggestions.
- Build New Brain Pathways. Have you’ve ever driven home and then not been sure how you’ve got there? Blame it on your brain’s overly traveled pathways. We don’t learn new things when we keep doing the things we’ve always done. But, Gupta explains, getting out and doing things differently – by, for example, brushing your teeth or painting with your non-dominant hand – helps your brain actually grow. “Scientifically speaking, the process is called neurogenesis, which means building new brain cells,” says Gupta. And if some of the tried-and-true paths in your brain shut down because of plaque or disease, having the ability to use new ones is helpful.
- Delay Retirement… Or Do It Differently. Research published on the website of the National Institutes of Health shows someone who retires at age 67 has a 30% – 34% reduction in developing dementia than someone who retires younger. That says more to Gupta about how people retire than retirement itself. “To me, it says that keeping busy learning new things, is something that works,” he says. “I think the assumption for a lot of people is, ‘Once I retire, I will fill in the blank — be more active, read more, engage more and all that stuff.’ But what you find is that for a lot of people, that’s not the case.” Work provides a connection, a way to interact with people and to even incorporate exercise in life (more on that in a second). So, the key is to make sure that if you stop working you’re diligent to incorporate those other things from a brain health standpoint, he notes.
But, Gupta explains, getting out and doing things differently – by, for example, brushing your teeth or painting with your non-dominant hand – helps your brain actually grow.
- Don’t Eliminate All Stress. As with many doctors, people are constantly telling Gupta that they want to eliminate the stress in their lives. He tells them that’s a “terrible” idea. “Stress is what motivates you,” he says. “It motivates you to study for an exam, to get out of bed, to want to do better.” That sort of stress is something we need. What we don’t need is the sort of toxic, chronic, relentless stress that doesn’t subside. The goal is to make sure you have times in your day when you’re not experiencing high levels of stress, making it cyclical rather than constant. And to that end…
- …Sleep Well. You need to not only get enough sleep (and yes, 7 to 9 hours per night is recommended) but the right kind of sleep. Deep sleep is what Gupta prescribes and one of the reasons he does so is memory. As you go through the day, things happen. They may not be transformative or monumental, Gupta notes, but there are things you’d like to remember. That happens when you sleep – those events move from your short-term memory stores to your long term ones. (That, for the record, is why college all-nighters don’t work. You think you’re helping yourself study, but by not sleeping you’re less likely to remember the information when the exam rolls around.) So, prep for bed tactically. Turn off your screens 30 to 60 minutes before you put your head on the pillow. And watch the alcohol consumption. It’ll help you fall asleep, but it won’t help you stay there.
- Walk, Don’t Run. The most reliable thing you can do to build new brain cells and prevent dementia is to move. “It’s almost like your, when your body is in motion, it’s sending a signal [to the brain that says], hey, I want to be here I want to be cognitively smart and good and as effective as I can be,” says Gupta. And while any kind of movement will do, what’s interesting is that working with a lot of intensity – which can be excellent for cardiovascular health – produces a lot of cortisol which is a stress hormone that actually inhibits brain health. Bottom line: What’s best for your brain is moderately active brisk walking. And that’s something almost everyone can do.
- Finally, Get Checked. Gupta is careful to note that these are not ways to cure Alzheimer’s if you’ve been given a diagnosis. But if you have not and you think you’re having symptoms, get checked. “There are a lot of things – as simple as hearing loss –that mimic dementia. It may be something very unrelated and very treatable, very addressable,” he says. And if you forget where you put your keys every now and then, don’t panic, he notes. “It’s not that you forgot where you put your keys. It’s that you never properly remembered where you put them in the first place.”
Read Dr. Chris Heye’s research about the impact of brain health and financial decision-making, and how to plan and prepare.
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