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What You Need to Know About Brain Health

And here's a FREE AARP brain health assessment!

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How to keep your brain sharp
Shana Novak (Prop Stylist: Michelle Longo/Halley Resources)
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Every night, I slather antiaging cream on my face and neck, hoping it’ll reduce those spots and lines. But what I really wish is that there was an effective antiaging product for my brain — especially when I consider how much higher women’s risk for dementia or Alzheimer’s disease is compared to men.

Not to be overly pessimistic and depressing (both risk factors for dementia, by the way), but just consider: More than 6 million people in the United States. have Alzheimer’s, and 2 out of 3 cases are in women, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

In addition, a woman at age 65 has about a 1 in 5 chance of developing Alzheimer’s, compared to a 1 in 11 chance for men.

Dementia is an umbrella term for several conditions in which the brain’s thinking and memory have declined severely enough to take away a person’s ability to function daily. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia in older adults, but there are a number of other types.

Knowledge is power, and AARP Members have the opportunity to take the AARP Staying Sharp Brain Health Assessment for FREE through June 30, 2021.

So, why are women at a higher risk for dementia? The short, frustrating answer is: We don’t know. The more hopeful answer is that research is slowly coming around to focusing on why dementia hits women more than men, and addressing some practical things women can do to cut their risk.

For a long time, it was thought that women got Alzheimer’s more frequently because they live longer and age is a risk factor. End of story. Except, of course, it’s not that simple. There are biological and sociocultural differences between women and men that affect how this disease develops and progresses.

For example, verbal memory tests are often used to diagnose cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. Women have a better verbal memory than men, so their scores tend to be higher on these tests even in the early stages of mental decline, delaying diagnosis until the disease has advanced further and is harder to treat, according to the American Academy of Neurology.

Hormonal changes play a role as well. Researchers are finding that women with a shorter-than-average reproductive span — menstruation that began at a later age, or menopause that started early, for example — may increase their risk of developing dementia by more than 20 percent because of less exposure to estrogen’s protective effect on a woman’s brain cells.

Recent studies also suggest that transitioning into menopause may play a role in women’s greater risk of dementia due to brain changes that occur as estrogen levels decrease. Typical biomarkers of dementia — such as the abnormally shaped tau proteins that build up and damage the brain — are also different between men and women. A recent Vanderbilt University study found that the toxic proteins seem to spread faster in women’s brains.

As a team of researchers from University of California, San Diego, wrote in a 2020 study in the journal Biology of Sex Differences, “There are critical gaps in our understanding of sex differences in Alzheimer’s disease,” including why it’s more prevalent in women, why women suffer a steeper cognitive decline, and why they have a higher risk for the disease if they carry the gene APOE4 — especially from the ages of 65 to 75.Though we’re not powerless in the fight against mental decline and dementia, many experts believe.

The 2020 report on dementia prevention by the Lancet Commission, a panel of 20 leaders in the medical field, says there is growing evidence that improving 12 risk factors “might prevent or delay up to 40 percent of dementias.”

Even those adults with a higher genetic risk might possibly be able to delay cognitive decline by eating healthier, getting more physical exercise, doing mentally challenging activities, and improving their heart health, studies have shown.

The key is starting to improve your lifestyle early, before brain changes have caused serious memory and thinking decline, according to neurologist Richard Isaacson, director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences in New York City.

Here are five things you could do to potentially lower your chance of mental decline, and two things that might not help.

Do something for your heart.

Have you gotten your high blood pressure under control? Are you getting regular exercise? Have you cut back on red meat and soda? Have you stopped smoking? All of these things improve blood flow to your heart, which also means to your brain. Research conducted for the American Heart Association and other studies show that improving the health of your cardiovascular system helps your brain, including protecting against cognitive decline and dementia.

Stop the snoring.

If your snoring could rattle the windows, if you wake frequently gasping for air, that could be bad news for your brain. A 2017 study in the journal Sleep found that a sleep disorder called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), where breathing repeatedly stops and starts, is linked to lower performance on memory and mental skills tests, as well as a higher risk of Alzheimer’s — possibly because the breathing interruptions disrupt sleep quality and reduce oxygen supply to the brain and other organs. Get your OSA treated; it could lower your risk, the findings suggest.

Just move it.

For those of us age 50 and older, exercise — of any kind — could be our fountain of (mental) youth. A 2017 review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine analyzed 39 studies of exercise’s effect on cognitive function in adults 50-plus. The key finding, researchers reported, was that moderate-intensity physical exercise — whether aerobic, tai chi, strength training or a mix of types — for at least 45 minutes per session was linked to improved memory and mental skills. A 2010 analysis from the Mayo Clinic Study of Aging came to a similar conclusion. “Any frequency of moderate exercise performed in midlife or late life was associated with reduced odds of having mild cognitive impairment.”

Wear your hearing aids.

An estimated 26.7 million Americans age 50 and older have hearing loss, but only about 1 in 7 use a hearing aid — even though ignoring hearing loss can lead to social isolation, depression, an increased risk of dementia and a faster rate of shrinkage in the brain. The good news, according to a 2020 study in the Journal of Clinical Medicine, is that wearing hearing aids may delay cognitive decline in older adults and improve brain function. Researchers gave cognitive tests to nearly 100 adults ages 62 to 82 before and after being fitted with hearing aids. After 18 months, 97.3 percent showed significant improvement in various mental skills. Women, in particular, showed improvements in memory. If you want to help your brain, a good way to start is with your ears.

Learn something new.

Whether it’s taking music lessons, learning a new card game, or deciding to tackle pickleball or a new hobby, challenging your brain helps build up what the experts call “cognitive reserve” — the brain’s ability to be resilient and cope with damage, including illness, injury or even a stroke. Research suggests cognitive reserve may even help slow the effects of cognitive aging. Learning new things also works different parts of your brain and can create new connections within the brain’s nerve pathways, all of which can help slow mental decline.

Two things that might not help.

Cognitive screening

There’s been a push for all adults 65 and older to be tested for mental decline, even if they have no signs or symptoms of cognitive impairment, in order to detect any possible problems early. But after reviewing the research on cognitive screening, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a national panel of leading medical experts, declined to weigh in on the issue, saying in 2020 there was a lack of clear scientific evidence of either the benefits or harms of these screenings. However, if you are having trouble remembering, you may want to talk to your doctor about being tested, the task force suggested. 

Over-the-counter supplements

Sorry, but there’s no magic pill to protect your brain. And taking those over-the-counter supplements that claim to enhance thinking skills could be dangerous. A 2020 study published in the journal Neurology: Clinical Practice by physician Pieter Cohen at Harvard Medical School and his colleagues found five potentially dangerous prescription drugs unapproved for use in the U.S. in some of these products. “Taking these drugs can have direct effects on your body, plus side effects and interactions with your other medications,” Cohen warned.

Try something safe and more energizing instead — like taking daily walks or signing up for a class.

Knowledge is power, and AARP Members have the opportunity to take the AARP Staying Sharp Brain Health Assessment for FREE through June 30, 2021. The assessment can give you a view into how you’re performing today and enable you to learn about strategies to help support brain health as you age. How does it work? You’ll take a series of science-based tests and based on your assessment results, you’ll receive personalized recommendations that include suggested activities that support brain health. 

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