Experts say continuing to work can keep you mentally sharp. So can exercise and engaging with family and friends.
Crossword puzzles are fine, but you probably should be doing more to stimulate your brain to help stave off Alzheimer’s disease.
For some people, that may include staying on the job and not retiring early.
Experts say when it comes to Alzheimer’s prevention, developing healthy brain habits is good practice at any age.
“From the Alzheimer’s Association’s perspective, we would say that it’s never too late and never too early to incorporate these healthy habits,” Dr. Rebecca Edelmayer, director of scientific engagement at the Alzheimer’s Association, told Healthline.
So what are the keys to mental fitness and how does one incorporate them into their life?
For starters, the Alzheimer’s Association offers a guide, 10 Ways to Love Your Brain, with some lifestyle tips for promoting brain health.
For younger and middle-aged people, the mental gymnastics of having a career and child-rearing provide substantial mental stimulation.
Dr. Jessica Langbaum, principal scientist at the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Arizona and associate director at the Alzheimer’s Prevention Initiative, recently told NPR that the social interaction and problem solving that come with her job help her stay mentally limber.
“We know that being socially engaged, maintaining mental well-being, engaging in purposeful exercise, getting seven to eight hours of sleep (and optimizing the quality of sleep), and dietary habits all play an important role in overall brain health,” she wrote in an email to Healthline.
“There is not a one-size-fits-all answer to finding this balance, and each person needs to identify what works best for them,” she added. “For me, it is ensuring that I carve out time for myself and my family outside of work hours, and this includes not constantly monitoring email outside of work hours.”
While having a career is, for many people, enough to keep them mentally on their toes, no one is able to work forever.
For older, recently retired people, it can be a mental challenge to go from a busy workweek to a life of leisure.
Considering that symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease typically appear after the age of 60, it’s doubly important for this population to take care of their brains.
Many people use crossword puzzles and other brain games to pass the time and stay mentally engaged.
While there’s nothing wrong with these activities, experts say it’s good to step outside of the comfort zone somewhat to challenge your brain in new ways.
“We’re talking about challenging and activating your brain, doing something that’s not necessarily routine for you,” explained Edelmayer. “It needs to be a challenge to be most beneficial — things that would involve strategic thinking, innovative thinking, or maybe multitasking and planning — ways that you would stretch yourself in some way.”
Langbaum agrees, saying it’s a matter of finding activities that are challenging but also enjoyable.
“I don’t recommend any specific activities, really the key here is finding something that brings the person joy and yet challenges them,” she wrote. “This might be volunteering, picking up a new hobby such as photography, restarting a hobby that you enjoyed in your youth, participating in a book club, the list is endless.”
Strong support networks are key for older people, especially when it comes to brain health.
Both Langbaum and Edelmayer stress the importance of family members and friends when it comes to encouraging and supporting older loved ones.
“When we think about Alzheimer’s disease, we know it’s not just affecting the individual that may have the disease, it’s affecting families as well,” said Edelmayer.
Going back to the Alzheimer’s Association’s 10 Ways to Love Your Brain document, Edelmayer says that family members can be a part of many of the items on the list.
Langbaum suggests encouraging a healthy social life, including offering to drive older loved ones to activities if they no longer drive.
“Another idea is to invite the person for dinner, especially if they live alone,” she wrote. “A healthy meal and good conversation is a great recipe for better brain health.”
Ultimately, the best way to promote brain health is to engage in multiple healthy activities.
Socializing and challenging one’s brain are both beneficial, but so is overall physical fitness and healthy eating.
“Engaging in purposeful exercise is so important to brain health,” stressed Langbaum. “People that engage in exercise, which increases their heart rate a few days a week, do better on memory and thinking tests. Moreover, this type of exercise is associated with delaying the onset of memory and thinking problems associated with dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease.”
These practices are known to be helpful in terms of staying mentally sharp, but overall understanding of the causes of Alzheimer’s disease is unfortunately still a murky picture.
But groups such as the Alzheimer’s Association and the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute are doing their part to promote further research.
The Alzheimer’s Association is also running a clinical trial, the U.S. POINTER study, that seeks to determine how different lifestyle interventions can impact the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
“We believe that the most important point when thinking about lifestyle intervention, is that it’s potentially a combination of different elements,” explained Edelmayer. “It’s not just about doing one of them. You want to think about ways that you can do multiple things to decrease your risk, and we believe that that’s going to be the most beneficial.”
Working later in life can help many people stay mentally sharp and reduce their Alzheimer’s risk.
However, we can’t rely on our careers to keep us mentally sharp forever.
Take control of your mental fitness by utilizing a multifaceted approach that includes mental stimulation, healthy lifestyle habits, and engaging with family and friends.