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What’s Good for Your Heart is Good for Your Brain

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June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month. Here are some evidence-based approaches to boost brain health and minimize risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

On a recent walk with friends, my left foot met a small pothole. I twisted my ankle and landed on my left wrist, breaking it in two places.

I could still walk, though my ankle was injured. My wrist, on the other hand, was in a lot of pain. I went to an urgent care clinic. When both the nurse and doctor met with me, they asked what had happened and if I’d hit my head in the fall. Thankfully, the answer was no. This got me thinking about how easily a fall can result in a head injury.

Protect Your Head

Protecting your head is certainly one way to shield your brain from injury. While I won’t be wearing a helmet while on a walk, I am walking more thoughtfully, and I always wear a helmet while biking. I also wear a seatbelt while in a car. A friend shared about a skiing injury earlier this Spring. She wasn’t wearing a helmet and had a mild concussion from the accident. She will be wearing a helmet going forward.

Safeguarding our brains from injury is important. But what else can we do to protect, contribute to, and enhance our brain health, with the added benefit of reducing the risk of developing Alzheimer’s?

Get Moving

Research shows that walking just 15–20 minutes, three times a week, has brain boosting benefits. Movement in all forms is a plus. Find an activity you enjoy—walking, bicycling, skiing, water aerobics, swimming, Tai Chi, gentle yoga, strength training. Regular physical activity improves blood flow to the brain, enhances memory and learning, and improves mood and thinking.

It’s never too late to start. Begin with a short walk in your neighborhood or gentle chair yoga. Check out the programs offered through your local senior or community center. Seattle Parks & Recreation Lifelong Recreation Programs and other local parks department programs are great places to get started. They offer the added benefit of social connection—another contributor to brain health.

Before starting, check with your healthcare provider first to make sure you are cleared for exercise. And be aware of potential hazards in the area where you choose to exercise (e.g., cords, shoes, rugs, poor lighting, uneven sidewalks). Don’t forget to hydrate.

Know Your Numbers

Do you know what your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and heart rate are? Know your numbers and monitor conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure—these are essential to brain and cardiovascular health.

Eating a healthy diet (see below), getting regular exercise (see above), and not smoking also contribute to keeping these conditions within healthy ranges, boosting brain power, and minimizing risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

High blood sugar, even without diabetes, has been shown to raise the risk for a myriad of health problems, including Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Swap sweetened sodas and other drinks high in sugar with iced or plain sparkling water flavored with a squeeze of fresh fruit, or slices of orange, strawberries, or cucumber.

We Are What We Eat

Dietary changes are one of the best lifestyle modifications we can make to support and improve brain health (and heart health, too). Most of us consume too much sugar, saturated fats, sodium, and calories. A few nutritional changes can go a long way to boost brain and heart health.

Increasing the number of fruits and vegetables we consume is a plus. It’s the perfect time of year to “eat the rainbow.” Colorful fruits and vegetables are the foundation of the Mediterranean diet, which is often cited as the gold standard for nutrition. The foundation of the Mediterranean diet is legumes, whole grains, lots of fruits, vegetables, plant-based protein, and fish, as well as healthy fats such as olive oil or canola.

If you are a gardener, you have the added benefit of physical activity. Take advantage of farmers markets and roadside stands—they are everywhere this time of year.

Two of my favorite healthy brain and anti-inflammatory nutrition gurus are:

  • Michelle Babb, MS, RD, CD, a registered dietitian based in West Seattle with a master’s degree in nutrition from Bastyr University, Michelle has several wonderful cookbooks (mine are dog-eared, stained from cooking because I use them daily), which you can find at your local library. She also teaches cooking classes at PCC Markets. Her website is filled with great recipes and smart approaches to nutrition.
  • Annie Fenn, MD, is founder of Brain Health Kitchen. Her website contains great recipes, insights, and evidence-based approaches to brain and overall health. She just published a cookbook, which I have on hold at my library and I’m anxious to explore.

Psychological Well-Being

Well-being comes in many forms. It’s important to know that social isolation is detrimental to our health and well-being. Finding ways to stay socially engaged and intellectually challenged is important if not essential.

Other aspects of psychological well-being include getting help when mental health challenges arise, reducing stress, aging with purpose, being of service to others and, for some, personal spirituality.

At times, these contributors to brain health are easy to overlook. Fortunately, there is no lack of outlets for getting connected and boosting psychological well-being at places like your local library, community, or senior activity center. Check the activities calendar at your place of worship or find an organization with whose mission you resonate and inquire about volunteer opportunities. 

Look for ways to de-stress through meditation or forest bathing. Take a break from the news. Enjoy a long soak in a bubble bath. Volunteer at the local food bank. Sit in the sun for a few minutes to drink in its warmth and some Vitamin D. 

Bonus Discovery

I just learned about and started using a free smartphone app developed at the University of Wisconsin—The Healthy Minds Program Framework . The program uses neuroscience, contemplative traditions, and skill-based learning methods to help users develop the skills for a healthy mind—and now it can be held in the palm of your hand! Translating pioneering neuroscience into tools for everyday life, their unique framework guides you through the four pillars of the science of training the mind. 

Pick One Thing

Chances are, you’re already doing a lot of these brain benefit practices. If you want to make some changes, pick just one new thing—exercise, diet, manage blood pressure or cholesterol, quitting smoking, or meditation. Try it for 21 days—the length of time it takes to develop a new habit. Then, add another brain health activity. Before you know it, you’ll be well on your way to improved well-being, happier gray matter, and a healthier lifestyle that you can maintain, all while lowering your risk of developing dementia.

Keri PollackContributor Keri Pollock directs marketing and communications for Aging Wisdom, a care management and creative engagement practice based in Seattle. She is a member of the Age Friendly Coalition for Seattle and King County, serves on the Phinney Neighborhood Association (PNA) Board, and the Frye Art Museum Creative Aging Programs Advisory Committee.