Some 50 million people in the world suffer from dementia – and this staggeringly large number is expected to triple by the year 2050. While there are no cures for Alzheimer’s disease and other common types of dementia, new guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend approaches to improve brain health and reduce the risk of dementia.
In their latest guidelines, developed from extensive scientific evidence, WHO estimates that as many as one in three cases of cognitive decline or dementia could be prevented by attention to basic and credible healthy lifestyle interventions.
Much of what WHO suggests has been discussed for years, but their recent report pays special attention to lifestyle changes that appear especially powerful and effective.
Exercise to Boost Brainpower
At the top of lifestyle hacks that can support healthy brain aging is, no surprise, increased physical activity.
Even small amounts of exercise can have health benefits but to boost your brainpower, plan on 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise five days per week.
This level of exercise appears to reduce the risk of cognitive decline in healthy older adults. It may even decrease the risk of progressing from mild cognitive impairment to more severe dementia. Higher levels of exercise may be more helpful yet.
The Mediterranean Diet
WHO considers the Mediterranean diet as particularly valuable. Plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, lots of fiber, healthy fats such as olive oil, and reduction of saturated fats such as those found in red meat may reduce healthy adults’ risk of cognitive decline.
A word about dietary supplements: In the absence of a vitamin or dietary deficiency, vitamin and dietary supplements have not consistently been proven helpful. WHO supports adoption of a healthy diet and discourages use of those heavily advertised, costly combination supplements.
Other recommendations from WHO include advice to stop smoking, limit alcohol intake and take good care of some common age-linked diseases: hypertension, diabetes mellitus, high cholesterol, depression, obesity and hearing loss. While the specific benefits for reducing the risk of dementia may be limited, these suggestions are all valuable goals for improving overall physical and mental health.
Since WHO’s advice promotes not only brain health but many aspects of physical and mental health, following the WHO suggestions seems like a “no-brainer.” I follow them, and hope you will too.
James M. Ellison, M.D., MPH, is The Swank Foundation Endowed Chair in Memory Care and Geriatrics at Christiana Care Health System.