Running, walking, biking, dancing, housecleaning, whatever you enjoy! It’s all good for your mind. And I’m not talking only about the proven mental health benefits. Yes, physical activity of any kind significantly reduces stress and anxiety and is a recommended part of the treatment for depression. But activity also has big brain benefits, and can prevent or delay dementia– even in people who have genetic risk.
The World Health Organization just released comprehensive guidelines on how people can reduce their risk of cognitive decline and dementia. It’s a 96 page document available for free download at the WHO website, but let me break it down for you, because the take-home message is pretty straightforward. (Multiple news outlets picked it up as well; Popular Science has a nice summary.)
Physicians and scientists reviewed mountains of research for the most solid studies and reliable evidence, and came up with a short list of safe, effective dementia prevention actions.
The strongest recommendation is for regular physical activity, ideally 150 minutes per week. Any activity counts, and there are added benefits for more minutes and/or more vigorous movement. The 150 minutes should ring a bell, because it’s the same amount as is recommended by the American Heart Association for optimal heart health. Is that a coincidence or what?? No, actually it makes perfect sense. It’s all about blood flow, clearing cell waste and toxins out, bringing oxygen and healing antioxidants in.
Speaking of antioxidants, the WHO also found tons of evidence in support of eating a plant-based Mediterranean- style diet. This means at least 5 servings of colorful fruits and vegetables daily, plus lentils and legumes, nuts and seeds, and whole grains, with any fats being ideally from healthy sources like avocados and olive oil, and featuring plenty of herbs and spices. This diet is naturally rich in antioxidants, and is healthfully anti-inflammatory. They also recommend avoiding inflammatory foods: Limiting any added sugars to no more than 5 teaspoons daily; limiting salt to one teaspoon daily, ideally; and avoiding animal fats as much as possible.
And I practically stood up and cheered when I read their pretty strong wording against any vitamins and supplements. They said vitamins and supplements “should not be recommended to reduce the risk of cognitive decline nor dementia”, but this is the very English-y WHO we’re talking about, so what they really mean is: “That shit is so NOT recommended.” Ha! Take that, you billion-dollar snake oil industry, even the mild-mannered WHO says you’re a worthless waste of money. Yeah.
They also review the evidence on a bunch of other things, concluding that we shouldn’t smoke tobacco products (and e-cigarettes will be in the next update of these guidelines, mark my words), we should only drink alcohol in very moderate moderation, or not at all, and should stay connected and engaged with other human beings socially.
And it all makes perfect sense based on the science. So much so, I was inspired, on this beautiful Memorial Day Monday, to set my alarm for 5 am and go out for a long woodsy run, sans headphones. (Okay, that was mainly because I couldn’t find them, but it was a good call anyways. Loads of problems got all worked out in my head by mile 3.)
Then, our family barbecue was a Latino feast featuring loads of beautiful fruits and veggies like pico de gallo, homemade guacamole, and roasted corn alongside lime-marinated grilled chicken thighs and olive-oil-and-garlic shrimp, with a massive mixed berries and watermelon salad for dessert (and I totally forgot to document that, but they read this blog so I can’t be lying). Yes, we all had our Corona lights and the kids got ice cream and s’mores and we all nibbled, yes, these things are true, and it’s OK.
The point is: Aim for the 150 minutes of activity weekly and the plant-based Mediterranean-style diet. Cut out sugar and salt wherever you can, do your best. Use herbs and spices in your cooking and don’t spend your hard-earned money on crap vitamins and supplements. Walk more, take the stairs, get a standing desk, park farther away when you go places. Hang with the fam, make plans with friends, join Meetup or take a class or whatever keeps you connected. Just stick with it, and stay with it.
Get it? Stay with it? I know, right?