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New Year's resolutions that cut your risk of Alzheimer's disease

If you need any added incentive to stick to your New Year’s resolutions, healthy lifestyle changes can reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

“There are things that you can do today — this very minute — to reduce your risk of developing dementia. It’s never too late and it’s never too early to incorporate healthy habits,” said Sara Kofman, public policy director for the Alzheimer’s Association Oregon and Southwest Washington Chapter.

Quitting smoking, limiting alcohol use, exercising, eating right, getting adequate sleep, challenging your brain and socializing can all reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.

Working or volunteering and treating underlying mental health issues, especially depression, also help.

The more healthy habits you adopt, the greater the benefit, researchers have found.

A healthy lifestyle may even reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s in people with a family history of the disease, scientists say.

Although people are aware of the harm smoking causes to the lungs, it can also wreak havoc on the brain.

Smoking damages blood vessels throughout the body, leading to bleeding in the brain and strokes.

“Arteries and veins in the brain are impaired. They’re fragile, small and leaky. The brain loses oxygen. It’s like having a bunch of mini-strokes people don’t even recognize they’ve had,” said Dr. Allison Lindauer, assistant professor of neurology at the Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine.

Brain damage from impaired blood flow causes vascular dementia, which is different from Alzheimer’s disease, she said.

Even before people develop signs of dementia, smoking is damaging their brains. One study found cognitive impairment among pack-a-day smokers who were still in their early 40s.

“Our findings demonstrate that early adult to mid-life smoking may be associated with cognitive impairment much earlier than we expected,” said Dr. Amber Bahorik, a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco who was on the research team.

For information on quitting smoking, call the Oregon Quit Line at 1-800-784-8669.

If you suspect you have a problem with drinking, now is the time to cut back or quit.

Studies show excessive alcohol consumption over a long period of time can cause brain damage and increase the risk of dementia. The jury is still out on low-to-moderate alcohol consumption.

A new study of female veterans found those with alcohol use disorder had a threefold risk of developing dementia compared to female veterans who didn’t have problems with alcohol use.

Alcohol use disorder, which affects an estimated 16 million Americans, is characterized by compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over intake and withdrawal symptoms when not drinking, researchers said.

While smoking and excessive drinking can damage the brain, regular physical exercise helps protect the brain.

Aim for 45 minutes of exercise four to five times per week, Lindauer said.

To double up on benefits, take a walk with a friend or join an exercise class. Social engagement decreases Alzheimer’s risk, she said.

Interacting with others gives the brain a work-out as we use our vocabulary, remember names and respond to social cues, Lindauer said.

“Going to church or meeting somebody new really challenges the brain to be active. Isolation is a big problem,” she said.

In one study, OHSU scientists are examining whether social interaction needs to take place in person for people to benefit. Senior citizens have 30-minute video chats several times a week with study team members about different topics.

Researchers will track their health and social activity. Some participants will have MRI brain scans at the beginning of the study and at the 6-month mark.

Staying mentally active by taking a class, playing card games or otherwise challenging your brain also reduces Alzheimer’s risk and helps people stay sharp.

Formal education, working and volunteering help build what scientists call “cognitive reserves” over a lifetime.

A new study has found that women who participated in the paid labor force experienced slower memory decline late in life compared to women who didn’t work outside the home. The results held true whether they were mothers or not.

Single moms who spent a long period of time without jobs suffered the biggest drop-off in average memory performance.

Although being a working mom or dad can be exhausting, it’s important for everyone to aim for adequate sleep, studies show.

Not getting enough sleep can lead to problems with memory and thinking — making it especially important to treat conditions like insomnia and sleep apnea, according to the Alzheimer’s Assocation.

Studies are also linking a history of depression — especially untreated depression — with an increased risk of cognitive decline. Seek medical treatment if you have symptoms of depression, anxiety or other mental health concerns.

Antidepressants help balance chemicals in the brain that are needed to transmit positive thoughts and emotions. Without enough chemical messengers like serotonin, people can experience extreme sadness, lack of interest, difficulty concentrating, irritability, sleep problems and suicidal thoughts.

Also seek medical care if you notice a decline in your vision or hearing. Even mild sensory impairments increase the risk of dementia, according to Maria Carrillo, Alzheimer’s Association chief science officer.

More research is needed to see if correcting sensory impairments with glasses, eye surgery or hearing aids can reduce dementia risk, she said.

But since people with impaired eyesight or hearing may limit their activities or become socially isolated — adding to the harm from sensory deprivation — it makes sense to ere on the side of caution and get eye and hearing exams.

Taking steps to protect your heart health can also improve your brain health.

Obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes are risk factors for both cardiovascular disease and dementia.

“What’s good for the heart is good for the brain,” Kofman said.

The Alzheimer’s Association encourages the public to help researchers find treatments for the disease by enrolling in clinical trials.

Trials cover everything from new medications and lifestyle interventions for patients, to studies about improving the health and wellbeing of caregivers.

The Alzheimer’s Association TrialMatch program is a free service that generates customized lists of studies based on user-provided information. Visit trialmatch.alz.org or call 1-800-272-3900 and press 1 for clinical trials.

People can review their match results and decide if they want to participate in studies.

To learn about clinical trials at OHSU, see www.ohsu.edu/brain-institute/ohsu-brain-institute-clinical-trials.

“This is an incredibly exciting time in Alzheimer’s disease research,” Kofman said. “The Alzheimer’s Association is confident that there are better treatments and earlier prevention and detection strategies that are going to be available in the foreseeable future.”

The Alzheimer’s Association operates a help line 24 hours a day, seven days a week for people living with the disease and their caregivers. Call 1-800-272-3900.

“It’s an incredible resource for people if they have questions or they need support. People can call it in their darkest hour. If they’ve had to put their mother to bed five times and it’s two in the morning and they don’t know what else to do, they can call,” Kofman said.

Lindauer said it’s important for everyone to adopt healthy habits, whether they want to reduce their risk of Alzheimer’s, delay the progress of the disease after being diagnosed or increase their resilience as caregivers.

Caregivers are at increased risk of depression, high blood pressure and other problems. Making healthy choices, connecting with a support group and asking for specific help from friends and family can ease the burden, Lindauer said.

“People love to help. People really do want to bring a casserole or mow your lawn,” she said.

At a time of year when many people are hoping to kick bad habits and make healthy choices, Kofman said your brain will thank you for exercising, quitting smoking, getting enough sleep and enjoying stimulating activities with friends and family.

“There’s a lot of things that you can do to love your brain,” she said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Exercising is one of many healthy habits that can cut the risk of Alzheimer's disease. File photo.