4 Lifestyle Choices That Could Save Your Brain from Alzheimer’s


We continue to raise awareness about Alzheimer’s by talking to Dr. Gary Small, “a professor of psychiatry and director of the UCLA Longevity Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior.” Dr. Small shares with A Place for Mom readers various ways to help keep the brain healthy.

Doctor, author and speaker, Dr. Gary Small has always had curiosity, and enjoyed solving problems and puzzles. While studying medicine, he became fascinated with how much the mind affected the body. “So much of a person’s health had to do with their attitude and their mental state, and that drew me to psychiatry.” He had the opportunity to study geriatric psychiatry and it became clear that memory and Alzheimer’s were the big issues.

“Once I got into the area of Alzheimer’s, it struck me that this was a gradually progressive problem, and if I were to have much of an impact here, I probably had a better opportunity in helping by trying to protect a healthy brain rather than trying to fix a brain after it had been damaged. And that’s why we focused on Alzheimer’s prevention and brain-healthy lifestyles.”

Protecting a Healthy Brain Is the Cure

Considering that there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, Dr. Small focuses on prevention or delaying the onset of symptoms. He believes that prevention is key in keeping the brain healthy from Alzheimer’s symptoms, and when you can delay the onset of symptoms for a lifetime, Dr. Small believes that is a kind of cure. In order to prevent symptoms, Dr. Small says you must focus on your lifestyle choices, that there is a distinct connection between lifestyle and susceptibility to cognitive decline.

“People have much more control than they realize,” shares Dr. Small. “Yes, this is a biological disease; your brain cells die and there are chemical imbalances in the brain. But, whether you exercise or not, how much you eat, what you eat, how much stress is in your life and how you manage that stress, and whether you learn memory techniques or stimulate your mind…all these are very important in terms of maintaining your brain function at the highest level possible.”

In Dr. Small’s book, “The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program,” he explains how people can take control of their lifestyle choices in order to help prevent, or delay the onset of, Alzheimer’s symptoms. The book contains an assessment test and provides readers a 7-day jumpstart program to start protecting the brain from cognitive decline.

The four areas that Dr. Small talks about in his book that readers should focus on are:

1. Nutrition

Research has shown that compounds found in certain foods can help prevent Alzheimer’s. Dr. Small says it’s also important to control how much you eat. “We have an epidemic of obesity and we need to be mindful of how much we much eat and not to overdo it on the processed foods and refined sugars. Emphasize fresh fruits and vegetables, and omega-3 fats from fish, nuts and flax seeds.”

Vitamins and minerals also have a connection to a healthy brain, but try to source these nutrients through food and not just supplements. Don’t forget to drink plenty of water. Since dehydration is linked to confusion and fatigue, be sure to stay hydrated for proper brain and body function.

2. Physical Exercise

Aerobic exercise, such as a brisk 15 minute daily walk, can help lower your risk for Alzheimer’s. “When you exercise, your body produces something called BDNF — brain derived neurotropic factor — and that acts like fertilizer for your brain cells. It stimulates your brain cells to sprout branches so they can communicate more effectively. When you exercise, your body also produces endorphins, which help improve mental focus and mood.”

Dr. Small also stresses the importance of strength training to provide additional benefits to cognitive health. “As we age, there’s a tendency to lose lean body mass and that is not good for your general health, and not good for your brain.”

3. Mental Exercise

In Dr. Small’s book, “The Memory Bible,” he outlines brain-enhancement strategies, including mental exercises. He says that there are two kinds of mental exercises:

Mental Stimulation: You can get this through your job, a stimulating conversation, putting together a puzzle — anything that gets you to think and gets your neurons to communicate. “The key is to train and not strain your brain,” says Dr. Small. “Find a sweet spot where the exercise is stimulating and fun, not too difficult and not too easy.”

Memory Techniques: One technique Dr. Small teaches is called, “Look, Snap, Connect,” which incorporates the three basic methods to improve your memory.

  • Look is a reminder to focus your attention and not get distracted
  • Snap is a reminder to create mental snapshots of what you want to recall since our brains are hardwired to remember visually
  • Connect is a way of linking up those mental snapshots so that they have meaning — if something is meaningful, it will become memorable

4. Stress Management

It’s important to lower your stress in order to lower inflammation in the body. Getting a good night’s rest is one way to help manage stress better. “One of the important things about restful sleep is that it has an anti-inflammatory effect, and that’s important because many of us think that the problem with Alzheimer’s is that there is too much brain inflammation,” says Dr. Small. “Getting a good night sleep, exercising and consuming omega-3 fats are all anti-inflammatory strategies.”

Dr. Small offers up a tip that addresses three out of the four areas to demonstrate how simple it is to apply healthy lifestyle choices: “Try to find a regular time, after dinner or in the morning, and take a brisk walk with a friend, relative or spouse. You’ll be getting physical exercise, you’ll be talking — which is another form of mental stimulation— and if you talk through stressful issues, you’ll be lowering your stress levels.”

Technology and the Brain

In Dr. Small’s book, “iBrain,” he addresses technology’s impact on the brain, “separating the digital natives — those born in the computer age — from the digital immigrants, who discovered computer technology as adults.” Technology can alter brain activity and create new neural pathways. Because of this, he expresses the importance of moderation in technology use. Surfing the internet can actually be a stimulating mental activity, but because technology can both help and harm the brain, he provides tips on how to manage “techno-brain burnout.”

If you overuse technology, it can harm the brain. “People frequently multi-task and are constantly looking at their phones, and this hurts their memory because they are not paying attention,” says Dr. Small. “Even though they have the illusion they are getting more done, they generally are making more errors.”

On the other hand, you can use technology to augment your biological memory. “Our research group and others have shown that certain computer programs can train your brain and improve your memory,” says Dr. Small. “There’s one game that can boost multitasking skills so that an 80 year old can perform like an untrained 20 year old in a short period of time. There are other computer programs that can improve short-term memory and help people with complex reasoning.”

One such program that Dr. Small is familiar with is Dakim BrainFitness. “They’ve developed brain training that our colleagues here at UCLA have tested and shown that after two months, you get significant improvement in cognition, and after 6 months, the improvement is even greater.”

The key with using technology is moderation. “The technology can be tapped into in a positive way, but we are often using it the wrong way,” says Dr. Small. “If you don’t take time offline, you will weaken other mental circuits.”

The Future of Alzheimer’s and Other Dementia-Related Disease

The good news is that Dr. Small believes research is on the right track. “The field is really focusing on early detection and prevention,” he says. “We’ve developed ways to use brain-scanning and genetic measures to identify problems early on, but we’ve got to test more treatments. We’re working on all fronts — medications, supplements, lifestyle,— but one of the challenges is that we’ve got to diversify our research portfolio. We can’t just look at one type of intervention. There’s been a lot of emphasis on clearing out the amyloid plaques in the brain, but that may not pan out, it hasn’t so far — so we have to look at inflammation and other mechanisms simultaneously.”

For those today who have a loved one living with Alzheimer’s, Dr. Small recommends that you encourage them to engage in familiar activities. If they have an activity they loved, participate with them and you’ll find that their mood may perk up. “One of my relatives has advance Alzheimer’s and is in a long-term care facility. She often doesn’t interact much, but I can always engage her and get her to laugh if I say a few things in Yiddish, which is a language that she remembers from her youth.”

Experiment with ways to interact with the loved one impacted by the disease to see what brings them out. Sometimes simply rubbing their arm or holding hands, or even complimenting how nice they look, can make a positive impact. Just don’t correct them if they don’t get something right. Be patient and take your time to enjoy it when you can connect with them.