Make better brain health your top New Year’s resolution for 2023

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By Jim Herlihy | Alzheimer’s Association

Alzheimer’s disease is expected to impact nearly 13 million Americans by 2050, including 76,000 Coloradans today, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. So, as you contemplate your New Year’s resolutions for 2023, consider there are steps you can take yourself to maintain and improve your cognitive function. 

Research has shown lifestyle changes like improving diet and exercising regularly have helped drive down death rates from cancer, heart disease and other major diseases. These same lifestyle changes may also reduce or slow your risk of cognitive decline, which is often a precursor to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. 

“There is increasing evidence to suggest that what is good for the heart is good for our brains,” said Meg Donahue, director of Community Engagement at the Alzheimer’s Association of Colorado. “Keeping our brains healthy is not something we should worry about only as we get older. It should be a lifelong effort.” 

Healthy brain tips

Looking for tips on how to protect your cognitive health? Here are several ideas borne from research supported by the Alzheimer’s Association:

• Cut back on “ultra-processed” foods. People who consume the highest amount of ultra-processed foods have a 28 percent faster decline in global cognitive scores — including memory, verbal fluency and executive function — compared to those with lower consumption, according to research involving half a million people living in the UK. High consumption was defined as more than 20 percent of daily caloric intake. Ultra-processed foods are those that go through significant industrial processes and contain large quantities of fats, sugar, salt, artificial flavors/colors, stabilizers and/or preservatives.

Examples include sodas, breakfast cereals, white bread, potato chips, and frozen foods, such as lasagna, pizza, ice cream, hamburgers and fries.

• Get vaccinated. Getting an annual flu vaccination was associated with a 40 percent decrease in the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease over the next four years, according to researchers from The University of Texas’ McGovern Medical School who found that even a single flu vaccination could reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by 17 percent.

• Get vaccinated (part two). Getting a vaccination against pneumonia between the ages of 65 and 75 reduced Alzheimer’s risk by up to 40 percent, according to a Duke University’s Social Science Research Institute study. 

• Manage your blood pressure. People treated by FDA-approved medications to a top (systolic) blood pressure reading of 120 instead of 140 were 19 percent less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment, according to a study led by researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. Those people also had fewer signs of damage on brain scans, and there was a possible trend toward fewer cases of dementia.

• Be social. That’s right; add “hang out with friends” and “have fun” to your New Year’s resolutions list. For example, enroll in a dance class with a friend. Alzheimer’s researchers are now looking into whether increased socialization, along with a “cocktail” of lifestyle interventions including improved diet, exercise, cognitive stimulation and self-monitoring of heart health risk can protect cognitive function. The Alzheimer’s Association’s U.S. study to protect brain health through lifestyle intervention to reduce risk (U.S. Pointer) is a two-year clinical trial that hopes to answer this question, and is the first such study to be conducted of a large group of Americans nationwide. 

“There’s currently no certain way to prevent Alzheimer’s and other dementias,” said Donahue, “but there is much to be gained by living a healthy lifestyle and adopting brain health habits that you enjoy.”

For those with questions about memory loss or personality changes that may be associated with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, the Alzheimer’s Association has a free Helpline staffed 24/7 by trained professional staff members: (800) 272-3900.

Alzheimer’s by the numbers:

• More than 6.5 million people in the U.S. are living with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia in 2022 — 55 million people around the world.

• Nearly one person in nine (10.7 percent) in the U.S. age 65 and older has Alzheimer’s dementia.

• More than 76,000 Coloradans are living with dementia.

• Approximately two-thirds of those living with Alzheimer’s are women.

• People of color are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s: Black Americans are twice as likely as whites, while Hispanics are 50 percent more likely than whites.