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Brain health: What can you do to keep your thinker healthy?

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FARGO - To help prevent lung cancer, you can quit smoking. To help prevent heart disease, you can eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly. But what can you do to help prevent dementia and Alzheimer's disease?

Unfortunately, with what we currently know about it, not much. According to the Alzheimer's Association, Alzheimer's is the only cause of death among the top 10 in America that can't be prevented, slowed or cured.

"There's a tremendous amount of research being done around whether we could potentially delay the onset, slow the progression, potentially even cure the disease, but as of today, we're still not in a place where we have mechanisms by which we can do that with absolute certainty," says Debbie Richman, vice president of education and outreach for the Alzheimer's Association's Minnesota-North Dakota chapter.

Meanwhile, the problem is growing. The most recent figures available show that 5.3 million Americans are living with the disease, projected to rise to 16 million by 2050. And although studies are being done, research dollars for dementia and Alzheimer's lag behind funding for cancer research.

However, some studies have given glimmers of hope, most notably the "FINGER Study," the results of which were reported at the 2014 Alzheimer's Association International Conference in Copenhagen.

The two-year clinical trial assessed the effects of several lifestyle modifications in 1,260 Finnish adults ages 60 to 77.

The study showed that "physical activity, nutritional guidance, cognitive training, social activities and management of heart-health risk factors improved cognitive performance, both overall and in separate measures of executive function, such as planning abilities, and the relationship between cognitive functions and physical movement."

The results support the advice of local health care providers who work with Alzheimer's and dementia patients -- for overall "brain health," follow the usual recommendations for overall health and well-being.

"I think the biggest impact would be what we tell everybody all the time. Don't smoke, drink in moderation, exercise and eat a balanced diet," says Dr. Shaun Christenson, who works in neurology and sleep health at Essentia Health in Fargo.

Data suggests that a balanced diet and regular exercise help improve cognitive performance in the general population; therefore, he says, they likely improve cognitive performance in people with Alzheimer's or dementia, too.

"I bet it will improve the prognosis and slow the process down, but that's not proven yet," he adds.

Dr. Susan Wood, a neuropsychologist with Sanford Health in Fargo, agrees that regular exercise has a neuroprotective effect, if for no other reason than it improves blood flow to the brain.

"It also helps improve mood function, which can be another protective factor, because you tend to engage in more things if you're not depressed," she says.

Richman, of the Alzheimer's Association, says social engagement is "extremely beneficial," not only in day-to-day life without the disease, but also with diagnosis.

She, along with doctors Christenson and Wood, field many questions about prevention. Most are disappointed to learn there's nothing definitive they can do to prevent or prolong the onset of dementia or Alzheimer's disease, but some are motivated to follow the lifestyle advice they should be following anyway because of the chance that it might help.

Here's what they have to say about some of the other trends and research in the field:

Reducing your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and high cholesterol: Preventing or managing these conditions, all of which damage the heart and blood vessels, can reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer's and dementia. We do know that much.

The connection between the heart and the brain makes sense. According to the Alzheimer's Association, each heartbeat pumps about 20 to 25 percent of your blood to your head, where brain cells use at least 20 percent of the food and oxygen your blood carries.

Consuming omega-3 fatty acids: Richman, Christenson and Wood all mentioned omega-3 fatty acids, found in some fish, grains, nuts and oils, as a dietary component that may help slow cognitive decline.

Several studies have been done on the connection, including one by UC Davis on mice that showed slowed accumulation of proteins associated with the brain-clogging plaques and tangles implicated in Alzheimer's disease.

Using brain apps, games and puzzles: Wood says they don't improve overall cognitive function, you just get better at those particular activities.

"People ask me, oftentimes, in my practice, 'Well, if I do crosswords for two hours a day, won't my memory improve?' 'No, you'll get better at crosswords,' " she tells them.

However, Richman and Christenson say, keeping the brain busy, active and engaged, no matter how you do it, is encouraged.

"Any brain activity is only a good thing for your overall health and well-being," Richman says. "It's just at this time, there's nothing definitively to say, 'If you do X, then you will not develop Alzheimer's.' We're not there yet."