Making lifestyle changes not only good for the heart, but

June was Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, and somehow that slipped by me. Maybe it was because here at the Oliver homestead we’re living with the effects of Alzheimer’s every day.

How can you avoid winding up in the same situation? The Alzheimer’s Association is encouraging all of us to adopt healthy lifestyle behaviors that can help to reduce the risk of developing cognitive problems.

To put this in perspective, more than 6 million Americans age 65 and older are living with Alzheimer’s disease, including 230,000 Illinois residents. That my husband, Tony, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s when he was 57 makes him part of the small fraction of those with early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Sadly, age is the greatest risk factor for the disease. One in three seniors age 85 and older will have it, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Although some brain changes will inevitably happen as we age, research is mounting to suggest that adopting a healthy lifestyle, including eating well, exercising regularly, not smoking and staying cognitively engaged, may help to reduce the risk, as well as to help us age healthier.

“Understanding the role healthy behaviors may play in reducing cognitive decline is a robust area of research currently,” Delia Jervier, the Alzheimer’s Association Illinois Chapter executive director, said in a news release. “Researchers are working to determine what may be the optimal lifestyle ‘recipe’ to reduce cognitive decline, but there are steps we can take now to age well and help reduce the risk of cognitive decline.”

As part of the effort to promote better brain health and help to stave off cognitive problems, the Alzheimer’s Association offers these tips:

Exercise regularly: Regular cardiovascular exercise helps increase blood flow to the body and brain, and there is strong evidence that regular physical activity is linked to better memory and thinking.

Maintain a heart-healthy diet: Stick to a meal schedule full of fruits and vegetables to ensure a well-balanced diet. Some evidence suggests that a healthful diet is linked to cognitive performance. The Mediterranean and DASH diets, which emphasize whole grains, green leafy vegetables, fish and berries, are linked to better cognitive functioning and help to reduce the risk of heart disease, too.

Get proper sleep: Maintaining a regular, uninterrupted sleep pattern benefits physical and psychological health, and helps clear waste from the brain. Adults should get at least seven hours of sleep each night and try to keep a routine bedtime.

Stay socially and mentally active: Meaningful social engagement may support cognitive health, so stay connected with friends and family. Engage your mind by doing activities that stump you, such as completing jigsaw puzzles or playing strategy games. Or learn a new language or how to play a musical instrument.

Keep your heart healthy: A recent study shows strong evidence that a healthier heart is connected to a healthier brain. The study shows that aggressively treating high blood pressure in older adults can help to reduce the development of mild cognitive impairment.

“Incorporating these behaviors becomes especially important as we age,” Jervier said. “But they are good guidelines to follow at any age. Research suggests that incorporating these behaviors in combination will have the greatest benefit, but even if you begin with one or two, you’re moving in the right direction.”

To learn more about ways to reduce your risk of cognitive decline by making lifestyle changes, visit alz.org.

It may be too late to implement these tips to prevent Tony from developing his disease, but they might help to slow its progress.

If nothing else, they might help me to stay healthy enough to continue to take care of him.

Joan Oliver is the former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at [email protected].