Written By Katherine Swarts
Read Time 4 Minutes
Nearly 6 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, the best-known and most dreaded form of dementia. Typically seen in people 65 and older, Alzheimer’s rarely gets much thought from those under 50, unless they have family members struggling with the condition. But certain odds are in place even before birth: people whose parents or grandparents have Alzheimer’s start life under increased risk, as do people with certain disabilities. (Half of 60-year-olds with Down syndrome also have Alzheimer’s—4.5 times the normal percentage for 65-year-olds—and Alzheimer’s rates are also higher among those with hearing disorders.)
Other risk factors may be introduced in childhood or young adulthood: growing up in a polluted environment, using recreational drugs, dropping out of school, suffering a traumatic brain injury. In fact, just about anything that harms overall health can be a contributor: the habits your children develop today may determine how well their brains function in sixty years.
Which is yet another reason to be concerned about high rates of obesity and inactivity among today’s youth. The earlier that healthy (or unhealthy) behavior becomes natural, the more likely it is to be maintained for life. While you can’t do much about the risk factors your children inherit, you can do a lot—starting with your personal example—to influence them toward lifelong low-risk habits.
Habits of Diet
Many experts consider the “Mediterranean diet” the healthiest diet on earth. The basics are:
- More high-fiber unprocessed foods: leafy greens, nuts, legumes, berries, and whole grains
- More healthy fats: olive oil, fish, poultry
- Less red meat, sugar-heavy sweets, and “convenience foods”
Not that you have to give up hamburgers and ice cream entirely: just make them an occasional treat rather than a daily staple. And you don’t have to add “prepare a four-course home-cooked meal” to your daily to-do list either. It’s entirely possible to feed your family a healthy diet while also juggling a full-time job and other responsibilities: a grocery-shopping app can help. Or reserve a Saturday a month to prepare and freeze multiple meals (you can make this a shared family activity).
Habits of Physical Fitness
Just two or three hours of aerobic activity each week significantly cuts the risk of developing obesity and related health problems. And you don’t need a regimented “exercise” program. Most kids are naturals at running, jumping, and climbing on a daily basis—at least until adults start pressuring them to “settle down, be quiet, come down from there before you fall.”
Of course children need to learn safety habits: wearing bike helmets, looking before they leap, clearing their play areas of tripping hazards. (Remember, traumatic brain injury is one increased-risk factor for Alzheimer’s.) But occasional bruises are a small price to pay for being overall healthy and fit. Besides encouraging your kids to play actively, stay fit yourself and share a regular romp in the park with the whole family.
Habits of Mental Fitness
The healthiest and least dementia-prone people exercise their brains as well. “Screen time” is fortunately less passive these days than when television was the sole option: brain-building apps and websites are now easy to find. Online or off, there’s a world of reading, puzzles, and “thinking games” available for any age and taste.
It’s even healthier for the brain to continue developing new skills on a regular basis, so try something in an entirely new format (e.g., left-brain activities for the right-brain person) every month or so. (Encouraging this in children is rarely difficult: adults are more likely to get stuck in a rut than are kids, who still realize that struggling and falling are nothing to be ashamed of.)
Other Healthy Habits
- Go to bed on time—and know your ideal sleep schedule, as well as the ones for your children and their ages.
- Build and nurture close human relationships. No one is designed to “go it alone” at any stage of life.
- Get regular medical checkups and vaccinations.
- If your child has a disability or other special needs, some of the good-health habits above may be impossible or even dangerous. Get advice on healthy alternatives from a pediatrician and from specialists.
- Understand any health-risk factors that can’t be changed, but don’t fret over them or assume that the worst is inevitable: attitudes also have a major influence on your child and on everyone’s health. If you’re really anxious, find a therapist and support group to help your family cope with the situation.
See also: BridgingApps reviews of child health apps