white family having thanksgiving together

Protecting Your Brain from Dementia

The good news is that making lifestyle changes can lower your risk of dementia significantly. It’s all about good habits: diet and exercise that promote vascular health, healthy mental and social activities, and good sleep practices.

But just as habits can be established by repetition, they can be derailed by getting out of your everyday schedule. And that brings me to the holidays, the most wonderful time of the year—and also the most disruptive to all those brain-healthy habits you’ve been working on. For example, good eating habits can be the first to go because food carries such a great emotional weight of memories, tradition, and love at this time of the year.

I would like to suggest, though, that if you look carefully, you can find holiday traditions that can be transformed into year-round brain-healthy habits to help prevent dementia. And so I present to you some ideas for changing the holidays from your cognitive health’s NEMESIS into its friend.

NEMESIS is my acronym for the seven pillars of brain health:

N: Nutrition

E: Exercise

M: Mental activity

E: Engagement in social activities

S: Stress management

I: Improvement of vascular health

S: Sleep

You can find sparks in holiday traditions that you can transform into year-round brain-healthy habits to help prevent dementia.

Nutrition: When you think about holiday food, the unhealthy dishes probably come to mind first—especially fat-laden recipes. But look at your traditions a little more closely. Maybe you only eat sweet potatoes at Thanksgiving, even though you like them. Why? Add them to your weekly shopping list. What other healthy dishes can you find in your holiday menus that deserve more attention the rest of the year?

Exercise: Some people think of the end-of-year holidays as sedentary, but they also offer opportunities for exercise. Do you throw the football around with your nieces and nephews? Could you do that more often? Do you enjoy walks to view the Christmas decorations in your neighborhood? Could you think of a way to introduce that same social element into your exercise routine?

Mental activity:  New research suggests that although any mental activity is good for the brain, what’s especially protective against dementia is learning something new. This year, when you see friends and relatives, ask them about their hobbies. You might be inspired to try one of them yourself.

Engagement in social activities: It can be wonderful to reconnect with relatives and old friends you don’t often see. Use that Holiday connection as a spark to rekindle old relationships, even over a distance.

Stress management: The holidays are notoriously stressful, both because they require so much planning and work and because they are so charged with emotion. But holiday traditions also contain sparks of stress reduction that could be appropriated into habits. For example, music is often a rich part of the holidays. Could you find a way to add more music to your life year-round?

Improvement of vascular health: This category includes exercise and diet, but with a special focus on blood pressure and blood sugar, cholesterol, and general heart health. This can be a tricky one during the holidays, which are often a time of making exceptions to your normal dietary rules. But the holidays are also focused on the emotional heart—that is, they’re centered around love for your family. That’s a great inspiration for managing your vascular health more carefully.

Sleep: The holidays can certainly disrupt our sleep schedule, but many of us also find in them the opportunity to get more rest. Why don’t we give ourselves permission to get enough sleep during the rest of the year as well?

This year, instead of focusing on how the holidays disrupt the brain-healthy habits you’ve been trying to establish, see what sparks they contain for building new habits that will protect your brain from cognitive decline.

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