The wage gap, gender stereotypes, and unpaid maternity leave are all important challenges women face in their working lives. But at Equinox’s High-Performance Living Summit in November, journalist, producer, and activist Maria Shriver proposed a less-discussed issue women need to start paying attention to: Alzheimer’s disease.
“This is kind of the ultimate women’s empowerment issue,” Shriver says, “because if you can’t think, if you can’t use your mind, you have no power.”
In fact, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, almost two thirds of the more than 5 million Americans diagnosed with Alzheimer’s are women. Women also account for three in five of the unpaid caregivers who take care of those with the disease. “Women have to drop out of the workforce,” Shriver emphasizes, either to take care of an ailing parent, or, later on, themselves.
Her biggest message? Despite the common misconception, “Alzheimer’s, or cognitive impairment, is not just a normal part of aging,” she says. But in order to prevent it, you have to start thinking about it in your 20s and 30s, even though it seems like an “old person’s” issue. It’s the reason she partnered with Equinox to create Move For Minds, a research fundraiser that emphasizes the connection between lifestyle habits and Alzheimer’s prevention, to be held at eight of the gym’s locations next June.
“You can train your brain just like you train your abs and biceps,” she says. “People are looking at how to have an awesome sexy body, so why not have an awesome, sexy brain?”
How to get your brain healthy and keep it that way? Here are four tips from the summit’s panel of Alzheimer’s experts.
1. Adopt a brain-healthy diet
The brain loves healthy fats, so embrace them, “but if you don’t simultaneously cut sugar and carbs, it isn’t going to work for you,” Dr. Perlmutter cautions. “Sugar is toxic to your brain…and your whole body.” Fill your diet with brain-boosting foods—everything from cinnamon and dark chocolate to red meat and trout—instead.
2. Prioritize sleep
Sleep is like a night-shift cleaning crew for your brain. It flushes out toxins that accumulate during the day and gets it ready for waking hours, and that function affects brain health—from reasoning to memory—over the long term.
Plus, ever cancel a workout or binge on carbs due to sleep deprivation? Adequate sleep allows you to succeed at the other healthy habits that prevent cognitive diseases, like eating well and exercising. “If you want to be successful at these other things, you have to put sleep first,” explains Jennifer L. Martin, PhD, a psychologist and sleep expert.
This is especially important since women have higher rates of insomnia than men, Dr. Martin emphasizes. Her top tip to stick to a bedtime even during the busiest of weeks? “There’s an element of attitude about it, that ‘I have 50 different things I have to accomplish before I can sleep,’ instead of thinking in the reverse, which is: ‘I have to sleep so I can do these 50 things tomorrow,'” she says. “We put sleep last. We’re approaching it wrong.”
3. Exercise regularly
“Aerobic exercise gets the the most love in the scientific literature in terms of boosting BDNF [brain-derived neurotrophic factor], an important growth factor for the brain, but in actuality all kinds of exercise help,” says Max Lugavere, a filmmaker and Alzheimer’s prevention advocate. “And muscle strength is directly related to brain health.”
4. Practice gratitude
This one’s simple, if a little surprising. Dr. Perlmutter says people constantly ask him what the magic ingredient is for brain health. “Is it DHA? Is it turmeric? Is it coconut oil? I think it’s gratitude,” he says, explaining that stress is one of the worst things for the brain. “The expression of gratitude, and carrying out of acts of gratitude, dramatically offsets the higher cortisol that we experience that’s damaging to our brains from our day-to-day lives.” Hey, new research also shows that happiness can change your brain in positive ways, and who doesn’t want to be as happy and grateful as possible?