March 27, 2019

Developing a Culture of Brain Health - Dr. Neelum Aggarwal


No longer a concern simply for later years, achieving brain health across the lifespan requires understanding, attention, and commitment to our body’s most powerful organ. We need to know how to empower ourselves, our families and our communities to keep our brains healthy from the earliest years.

How does Alzheimer’s fit into the idea of building a culture of brain health? We discussed this question in a special Alzheimer’s Talk for Sunrise Senior Living families, team members, and community partners. After a welcome by Rita Altman, RN, MSN, CVM, leader of Sunrise’s Memory Care and Programming team, we heard from Neelum T. Aggarwal, MD, of the Rush University Alzheimer’s Disease Center and the American Medical Women’s Association, about ways to promote cognitive health, helping to reduce their risk for diseases like Alzheimer’s. Jill Lesser, UsAgainstAlzheimer’s board member and president of WomenAgainstAlzheimer’s, moderated this fascinating conversation.

Press the 'play' button under the image at left to hear the full conversation.

What Is Alzheimer’s? What Are Its Early Signs?

Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia. Dementia refers to changes in cognitive function and motor ability that occur over time and are not explained by other neurological illnesses. Besides Alzheimer’s, other dementias include vascular, Lewy body, and Pick’s (frontotemporal).

The first noticeable symptom of Alzheimer’s dementia is usually a change in short-term memory—frequently losing your keys or getting lost in familiar areas. In frontotemporal dementia, early signs are language issues or personality changes. In Lewy body dementia, the first signs may include slowness in movement and slow or soft speech, followed later by memory loss.

How Is Brain Health Connected to Alzheimer’s?

We have long had bike helmets to prevent head injury, but the idea of brain health is somewhat new. Doctors talk with us about heart health and bone health but not brain health. Yet emerging science reveals that a resistant, resilient brain can result from proactive attention to our overall health. In Alzheimer’s research specifically, emphasis has recently shifted to include prevention studies, as well as to studies in pursuit of treatments.

Alzheimer’s is a very complex condition, and many factors affect our risk for it: blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol, age, diet, physical activity, family history, sex, race and ethnicity. Alzheimer’s risk begins to rise in mid-life or even earlier. Women are twice as likely as men to have it. African Americans are roughly twice, and Latinos 1½ times, as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as non-Hispanic Caucasians.

How Can We Keep Our Brains Healthy & Prevent Cognitive Decline?

To protect our brain health, Dr. Aggarwal says the top three things we can do are: lowering our risk for cardiovascular disease, eating a healthy diet, and exercising. Beyond these, managing stress and the psychosocial factors in our lives can also protect our brains.

Heart-healthy behavior. Many people may be glad to learn that things we’re doing to improve our heart health can also improve our cognitive health.

Good nutrition. In a major clinical trial called the MIND study (led by Dr. Martha Clare Morris), Dr. Aggarwal is helping lead evaluation of the MIND diet’s effect on cognitive function in older adults at risk of Alzheimer’s but with no symptoms. The MIND diet focuses on leafy greens, limited meat intake, nuts (especially walnuts & almonds), berries (especially blueberries), and olive oil for cooking. Learn more about the MIND diet.

Physical activity. Just as exercise is good for our heart health and mental health, it is also essential for brain health.

Social engagement. Social interaction is important across our lifespan to maintain cognition. Lonely people talk less when around others, and cognition can decline as a result. For older adults, social and intellectual stimulation can help the brain come alive again, so they can be more independent and participate more fully in activities.

Adequate, high-quality sleep. Poor sleep increases stroke risk as well as amyloid build-up in the brain, which is linked with Alzheimer’s. However, you can control many causes of poor sleep: caffeine, alcohol consumption, being too active before bedtime, and mobile devices, whose blue light disrupts sleep.

Insulin resistance. Diabetes is linked to premature atrophy of the brain. It also affects the brain’s blood vessels, and cognitive issues such as memory changes or slowness in answering questions may be due to these vascular changes. If you are diabetic, track your numbers and stick to your diet and exercise plan.

Managing stress. Uncontrolled stress keeps cortisol levels high. In the brain, cortisol attacks the hippocampus, which is involved in memory. Along with other stress management techniques, consider mindfulness meditation, which quiets and slows the mind, helping you think more clearly and creatively. Start small, a few minutes a day. There are many good smartphone apps to help you get started.


For better brain health now and later in life, Dr. Aggarwal advises identifying things you can change now and taking steps to protect your brain. That way, after age 65, when cognitive change typically starts, your brain health is optimized, giving you the best chance of preserving cognition and staving off decline.

To help everyone make brain health a part of their everyday lives, the WomenAgainstAlzheimer’s Be Brain Powerful campaign has launched a 30-day Brain Health Challenge. You’ll receive daily reminders of easy things you can do to keep your brain healthy. You can sign up at

UsAgainstAlzheimer's is grateful for the continuing partnership of Sunrise Senior Living.