Everyone knows that a healthy lifestyle involves eating fruits and vegetables and getting lots of exercise—but new research says that it might have a much more dramatic impact on our cognitive health than we previously thought.

Last month, researchers at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Los Angeles presented a new study on how five specific lifestyle choices were linked to a 60% reduction in the risk of developing the disease. In fact, the compiled report states that even adopting four of the five maintained the same 60% reduction.

The factors included in the study were:

  • getting 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week
  • not smoking
  • limiting alcohol to one drink per day
  • participating in cognitive stimulation (such as puzzles, or other problem-solving tasks)
  • a “good diet” (mostly vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, seafood, poultry and olive oil—and avoiding pastries, sweets, fried food, and too much red meat or saturated fats).

The researchers from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago who managed the study were confident there would be some link between the lifestyle factors and cognitive outcomes, but co-author and professor Klodian Dhana said that he and the other authors of the study were all shocked by the “magnitude of the effect.”

But, not all of the study’s participants were stringent in adopting all five of the listed habits over the course of the 6 to 9 years of research—and this revealed another promising statistic: for those who added just one of the healthier lifestyle choices to whatever their current number of factors was, the risk of dementia decreased by an additional 22%.

Even for most people with a genetic predisposition to dementia, a healthy lifestyle can be equally protective, according to a separate study of over 200,000 individuals published in JAMA on the same day.

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Don’t Forget to Eat Blueberries and Mushrooms

Out of the lifestyle elements that were tracked, probably the most interesting is the foods we choose to eat. In the coming decades, the familiar refrain of “eat your vegetables” may become “get your polyphenols and phytonutrients.” Scientific research has proven that these mysterious components of plant-based foods are what we should be eating if we value our brain function.

For instance, this 2016 study featured on GNN found that blueberries help to fend off Alzheimer’s thanks to their phytonutrient flavonoids called anthocyanins.

“The blueberry group demonstrated improved memory and improved access to words and concepts,” said Robert Krikorian, leader of the research team. “Our new findings corroborate those of previous animal studies and preliminary human studies, adding further support to the notion that blueberries can have a real benefit in improving memory and cognitive function in some older adults.”

Another study featured on GNN in 2018 found that combining blueberries and grapes also resulted in surprising improvements in the memory, spatial recognition, and learning capabilities. This is because the two fruits are rich in polyphenols, which are micronutrient plant compounds that are good for your brain. The two polyphenol-rich extracts combined together resulted in a boost much greater than using one or the other exclusively.

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And then there’s ergothioneine, or ET: a compound found in mushrooms which is also a protector of cognitive function. Instead of warding off Alzheimer’s, however, it protects against mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Still, a team from the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine at the National University of Singapore (NUS) found that seniors consuming more than two portions of mushrooms every week were linked with a reduction in odds of experiencing mental decline by as much as 50%.

Another Lifestyle Choice With Dementia Implications: Flossing Your Teeth

There is also a link between gingivitis and Alzheimer’s—and the good news is, like diet, you have control over how well you clean your teeth.

Researcher Piotr Mydel from the University of Bergen “discovered DNA-based proof that the bacteria causing gingivitis can move from the mouth to the brain.” Once in the brain, the bacteria excrete toxins that kill cerebral nerve cells.

While the bacteria don’t directly cause Alzheimer’s, the presence of the bacteria in the brain increases the risk of developing the disease and can result in a faster onset for people who are already at risk. In addition, a drug has been developed that can block those enzymes, which is scheduled to be tested in clinical trials in late 2019.

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“Use It, Or Lose It”

In terms of getting some exercise, this 68-year-old man with Alzheimer’s has staved off the the disease by climbing a mountain every day for the last 50 years.

Another way to elevate your fortitude against dementia is by pulling out a crossword puzzle or word search quiz for a low-cost and readily available way to exercise your gray matter.

When 17-year-old John Frates realized his grandmother was struggling with the word searches she had always loved, he created a book of large-print puzzles to soften the effects of her dementia. It had simpler words and no diagonal or backward spellings. Mary Frates was delighted. “Every time I showed her a new word search, her eyes lit up,” John told Good News Network.

John then conducted a scientific study on how the word searches could benefit elderly patients with dementia and presented his findings at the American College of Lifestyle Medicine Conference in 2017, suggesting that even those who have already noticed signs of cognitive decline can continue to “use it,” perhaps just with a little help.

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We all hear these reminders from doctors and parents: Eat your fruits and vegetables… Don’t forget to floss… Get some exercise. It’s good to know these are all aligned with today’s cutting-edge research on Alzheimer’s.

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