Be physically active
Exercise can help to stave off Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. “People don’t realize physical activity is as important for the brain as for the heart,” says Dr. Sandra Black, director of the Brain Sciences Research Program at Sunnybrook Research Institute in Toronto. Aerobic activity increases a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes the health of nerve cells in areas of the brain linked to memory, learning and higher-level thinking. “BDNF seems to be involved in brain repair, including in the hippocampus, the area that’s implicated in Alzheimer’s,” Black says. In a 2010 study, women who exercised in their teens were much less likely to have cognitive problems 60 years later.
Overweight and obese people, even if they don’t lose weight, can add years to their lives by increasing their activity even slightly. Pooling data from more than 650,000 Europeans and North Americans, a research team led by the National Cancer Institute found in 2012 that people who did the recommended minimum of 150 minutes of moderate activity a week, such as brisk walking, gained an average 3.4 years of life compared to those who did no activity. Those who did twice the recommended activity, but were still overweight or obese, added 4.2 years. “It surprised us that even if you did 75 minutes a week—half the recommended amount—you still gained 1.8 years of life,” says I-Min Lee, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Mass., and senior author on the study. “And it didn’t matter how heavy you were; you still lived longer than people of the same weight who didn’t exercise.”