When the brilliant and talented Tina Turner passed after a long battle with kidney disease, one of her biggest regrets came to light. She hadn’t understood the link between high blood pressure and kidney health before it was too late, and she desperately wanted to raise awareness. We don’t get warnings like this from people battling Alzheimer’s and dementia. As many of us are all too painfully aware, in the later stages, people with these devastating diseases cannot communicate.
After losing two grandparents to Alzheimer’s, I’ve dedicated my career to changing the trajectory of cognitive disease. I want to use my voice every day to let others know that there are things we can do to protect our brain—the organ that powers our understanding, our wit, and our stories—now and in the future.
Here are the tips I give my own friends, in midlife and beyond, to protect thinking and memory. It’s all science-backed advice, vetted by our neuroscientists, with links to research so you can learn more and educate your friends.
Brain health secrets for you
- Eat brain-healthy foods to lower your risk of Alzheimer’s disease by as much as 53%. (Greens, beans, nuts, berries, whole grains, fatty fish, and EVOO have all been found to have brain-protective benefits.)
- Aim for regular low to moderate physical activity to cut your risk of cognitive decline by more than a third. Walking, weight lifting, and even stretching are all great choices.
- People who routinely get around 7 hours of sleep have the lowest incidence of dementia. Keep your bedroom cool and screen-free!
- Establish a go-to stress-relief practice (for example, meditation or journaling) to improve memory.
- Older adults who continue to read, play games, and learn new things can delay cognitive decline.
- Stay social. The biggest social butterflies in their communities have the slowest rate of cognitive decline.
- Get help for other health conditions. Hypertension, diabetes, hearing loss, and depression can all raise your risk. But managing those well will lower it.
- Mind your hormones, women. Estrogen decline may play a role in Alzheimer’s. Most health experts have changed their tune on hormone replacement therapy around menopause. Don’t be afraid to discuss this with your doctor.
- Reframe your outlook on aging. Not all of the brain changes caused by aging are negative. Aside from your ever-expanding wisdom, these areas continue to improve over time:
- reading ability
- verbal memory
Better care for your loved ones
If you have older parents or grandparents, here’s how to optimize their cognitive care.
Early detection is everything
When it comes to cognition, don’t be an ostrich. A head-in-sand approach doesn’t improve outcomes. But getting your head checked early does! Change the culture in your family. Normalize talking about moments of brain fog and confusion so issues will come to light sooner. In fact, there are many things that can cause reversible cognitive impairment: sleep apnea, iron deficiency, overmedication, and UTIs, to name a few.
Cognitive screening doesn’t happen routinely
Right now you have to ask for it. The 2023 Alzheimer’s Association Facts and Figures Report had this heartbreaking detail: Almost all PCPs say they don’t screen for cognitive impairment unless patients or family members bring it up. Which means only squeaky wheels with involved families get a formal check (a sad example of health inequity). Medicare has required that some cognitive impairment evaluation happen in annual wellness visits since 2011. But a doctor can tick the box based on observation alone. They actively avoid traditional pen-and-paper tests because they’re antiquated, clunky, and too time consuming to be administered and hand-scored in that yearly checkup.
Don’t count on a timely specialist visit
There’s a documented shortage of neurologists and geriatricians, and waitlists are long. So PCPs who pass patients on to specialists may not be doing them a favor. We know that half the people with Alzheimer’s are diagnosed in later stages. And these bottlenecks are a contributing factor. Neurotrack, Alzheimer’s Association, and most of the advocacy groups out there firmly believe that primary care is where detection needs to happen.
New medications increase need for screening at scale
We’re so excited about newly-approved lecanemab, nearly-approved donanemab, and other disease-modifying therapies in the drug development pipeline. They’re far from perfect, but they’re powerful enough to change the course of the disease. The catch is that they must be administered in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. In order to do that, we need to speed diagnosis. And in order to do that, we need screening at scale.
We can fix this
We’re out to disrupt the cognitive care status quo. Neurotrack has a rapid, digital screening tool that can slip into an annual wellness visit workflow. It’s self-guided, using a tablet that a medical assistant can hand to a patient in an exam room. But don’t take my word for it… 9 out of 10 primary care teams tell us it’s easy to use. It should be a routine, first-line screen in every senior’s annual wellness visit, as mundane as checking blood pressure. It gives doctors a single data point to track over time, and requires minimal training. And all of that means it’s a perfect fit for primary care.
Neurotrack’s screening is certainly not the only solution to the Alzheimer’s crisis, but it’s a powerful, easy-to-implement step that could have a colossal impact, and give families more good years together. I’m proud to be part of it.