Brain health: how can you reduce cognitive decline? An interview with Heather Snyder, Ph.D.

Dr. Heather SnyderTHOUGHT LEADERS SERIES...insight from the world’s leading experts

Please can you outline the main findings of the recent survey by Reader’s Digest and the Alzheimer’s Association?

Reader’s Digest and the Alzheimer’s Association partnered to survey approximately 1,600 people in May 2015 about their brain health and their knowledge of how lifestyle habits affect cognitive decline and dementia. The survey found that 91 percent of people believe they can reduce their risk of cognitive decline, but they have misconceptions about ways to keep their brains healthy as they age.

Alzheimer

While the brain is the command center of the body and deserves as much attention as the heart and other vital organs, only 33 percent of people surveyed see their brain as important from a health perspective. Further, only 21 percent of people say their brain is an area they focus on when making healthy lifestyle choices.

When it comes to nutrition, only five percent of people surveyed consider their brain when trying to eat healthily, even though a balanced diet higher in vegetables and fruit may help reduce the risk of cognitive decline as we age.

Only 62 percent of people realize that smoking affects their risk of cognitive decline. Not only does smoking increase risk of cognitive decline, quitting can reduce risk to levels comparable to people who have not smoked.

Additionally, the survey found:

  • Just 59 percent of people recognize that taking a class is a way to protect your brain from cognitive decline. There is strong evidence linking more years of formal education with reduced risk of cognitive decline and dementia.
  • As many as 69 percent of survey respondents incorrectly believe you can reduce your risk of cognitive decline by eating one or two of the right “super foods.” The evidence suggests it is more about the total diet than eating or avoiding any single ingredient.
  • 60 percent of survey respondents incorrectly believe that by using the “right” puzzle, game or app, they can reduce their risk of cognitive decline. However, there is no single “brain game” that is proven to reduce the risk of cognitive decline. Evidence shows that consistently engaging in activities that involve learning new skills and solving problems, or that stretch the mind strategically are ways to potentially reduce risk of cognitive decline.

Why do you think there are so many misconceptions about ways to keep our brains healthy?

Misconceptions may exist because people don’t often focus on their brains when they think of their health – they are typically focused on other areas like heart health. However, it is important for people to know that the same habits that are good for your overall health, including your heart health, are also good for your brain.

What are the key everyday lifestyle choices that can make a positive impact on brain health?

The evidence is mounting that people can reduce their risk of cognitive decline as they age by making key lifestyle changes. That is the conclusion of a research summary recently published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.

With this in mind, the Alzheimer’s Association offers 10 Ways to Love Your Brain, tips that may reduce the risk of cognitive decline.

More information on these tips can be found at: http://www.alz.org/we_can_help_brain_health_maintain_your_brain.asp

How is a healthy diet thought to reduce the risk of cognitive decline?

Eating a healthy and balanced diet that is higher in vegetables and fruit may help reduce a person’s risk of cognitive decline. Although research on diet and cognitive function is limited, certain diets, including the Mediterranean and Mediterranean-DASH, may contribute to risk reduction.

The Mediterranean diet incorporates different principles of healthy eating that are typically found in the areas bordering the Mediterranean Sea:

  • Focus on fruit, vegetables, nuts and grains.
  • Replace butter with healthy fats, like olive oil.
  • Limit red meat.
  • Use herbs to flavor food rather than salt.
  • Eat fish and poultry at least twice a week.

Mediterranean-DASH is a variation that includes an emphasis on plant-based foods and limited animal and high saturated fat foods. It also specifies berries and green leafy vegetables and food component servings that reflect diet-dementia study findings.

What impact does quitting smoking have on brain health?

Evidence shows that smoking increases risk of cognitive decline. We encourage everyone who smokes to quit – it will have a positive impact on not only your brain health but your overall health.

How much sleep do you need to have each night to keep your brain healthy?

The amount of sleep each person needs depends on several factors, including age. Experts recommend most adults should get between seven and nine hours of sleep per night. Not getting enough sleep due to conditions like insomnia or sleep apnea may result in problems with memory and thinking. Interestingly, getting too much sleep also may be detrimental to your health. Anyone who is having sleep problems or is concerned about how much sleep they need should consult their physician or a sleep specialist.

Many people play brain-training games to try to keep their brains healthy. How effective are such brain games at reducing the risk of cognitive decline?

To keep your brain healthy it is important to challenge and activate your mind. There is no single “brain game” that is proven to reduce the risk of cognitive decline.

Evidence indicates that consistently engaging in activities that involve learning new skills, solving problems, novel experiences, or that stretch the mind strategically are ways to potentially reduce risk of cognitive decline.

For example, building a piece of furniture, completing a jigsaw puzzle, doing something artistic and playing card games, such as bridge, that make you think strategically can all challenge and activate your mind.

The Alzheimer’s Association encourages people to be savvy consumers. Before trying a new treatment or treatment regimen — or before investing in brain games — consult trusted, reputable professionals such as your doctor, pharmacist or the Alzheimer’s Association. Fortunately, most of the activities that stimulate the brain are available at no cost.

What are the main myths you’d like to dispel about brain health?

It’s time to reset the way we think about our brain health, as it is essential for overall body health. We need to leave behind the idea that there is nothing people can do to reduce their risk of cognitive decline.

The evidence that everyday lifestyle choices can make a positive impact on brain health is something that cannot be ignored. By making key lifestyle changes, people can work toward maintaining a healthy brain as they age.

At what point should one be concerned about cognitive decline? Are there any particular signs to watch out for?

It’s never too late or too early to start thinking about your brain’s health – making healthy choices at any age is beneficial to your well-being.

In addition to the 10 Ways to Love Your Brain, the Alzheimer’s Association offers the 10 Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s, which can be found at www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_10_signs_of_alzheimers.asp.

These include:

  1. Memory loss that disrupts daily life.
  2. Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure
  3. New problems with words in speaking or writing.

The website also includes typical age-related changes that probably are not related to Alzheimer’s.

Never To Late To Start

Where can readers find more information?

For more information, visit the Alzheimer’s Association’s website, www.alz.org.

It includes basic information, guidance and support for people with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers, the latest in research and science, plus how everyone can get involved in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease.

About Heather Snyder, Ph.DHeather Snyder

Heather Snyder, Ph.D., is Director of Medical and Scientific Operations at the Alzheimer’s Association.

Dr. Snyder oversees the Association's International Research Grant Program, the mechanism through which the Association funds research applications. In addition to ensuring the smooth review of applications and distribution of awards to successful applicants, she is responsible for the dissemination of results and ongoing investigations to a wide range of audiences.

She received her Ph.D. from Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine and her B.A. in Biology and Religious Studies from The University of Virginia. Since graduating from Stritch, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the Neurobiology Program at Children’s Memorial Research Center, affiliated with Northwestern University, in Chicago.

The Alzheimer’s Association is the leading voluntary health organization in Alzheimer’s care, support and research. Our mission is to eliminate Alzheimer’s disease through the advancement of research, to provide and enhance care and support for all affected, and to reduce the risk of dementia through the promotion of brain health. Our vision is a world without Alzheimer’s disease. www.alz.org

April Cashin-Garbutt

Written by

April Cashin-Garbutt

April graduated with a first-class honours degree in Natural Sciences from Pembroke College, University of Cambridge. During her time as Editor-in-Chief, News-Medical (2012-2017), she kickstarted the content production process and helped to grow the website readership to over 60 million visitors per year. Through interviewing global thought leaders in medicine and life sciences, including Nobel laureates, April developed a passion for neuroscience and now works at the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour, located within UCL.

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Comments

  1. Kathy Furtado Kathy Furtado United States says:

    My husband and I have been doing all the things you recommend for more than our 32 years together. He was recently diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's. What more could we have done?

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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