For some time now I have been curious about what I can do to maintain and even improve my brain health as I grow older. Like the brain itself, this is a complicated topic. There is no single factor that makes or breaks your brain health, but rather a combination of factors. The good news is, there are some key things that we control that can make a measured difference in our brain’s health as we age. So, let’s dive in and see what they are!
I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal by Anne Tergesen called What Science Tells Us About Preventing Dementia which does a great job addressing key brain health topics. I recommend you check it out, however, if you don’t get the chance to read the article here is a summary of the key points as well as information from additional research I did on the topic.
Tergesen starts by stating “There are no instant, miracle cures but recent studies suggest we have more control over our cognitive health than we might think. It just takes some effort”. What I like about this approach is that it encourages us to focus on things we can control, rather than just worry about things outside of our control (say our genetics for example). A recent Lancet report (Lancet is a medical journal) distilled the findings of hundreds of studies and came to the conclusion that “around 35% of dementia cases might be prevented if people do things including exercising and engaging in cognitively stimulating activities”. On the other hand, the report pointed to factors that contribute to dementia risk including “midlife obesity, physical inactivity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, social isolation, and low education levels”.
So, let’s get right to the practical stuff. What should we be doing to maintain a healthy brain? According to the studies referenced above they are as follows:
BLOOD-PRESSURE CONTROL: Proper blood pressure control was found to reduce cognitive impairment by as much as 19% as well as resulting in less damaging changes in the brain. The stated issue with high blood pressure is that over time, it may damage the vessels needed to deliver blood to the brain. This, in turn, can reduce blood flow and starve the brain of critical nutrition.
EXERCISE: As you know if you read my blog, I am a big fan of exercise regardless of your age! Now we can add one more positive aspect of being physically active to the list, our brain health. According to the study, exercise helps increase blood flow which in turn improves the blood vessels in the brain as well as raising levels of HDL cholesterol (HDL is the "good cholesterol" as it removes harmful “bad” cholesterol from your system). Indirectly, exercise is also known to help reduce stress and anxiety and help you sleep better. These indirect benefits also promote good cognitive health.
COGNITIVE TRAINING: Yaakov Stern, a professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, wrote that maintaining educational and mentally stimulating activities “fosters growth of new neurons and may slow the rate at which certain regions of the brain shrink with age”. Cognitive training (also known as brain training) can be much like physical training where one implements a regular regiment of stimulating exercises for the brain. Medical News Today did a study called Five of the best apps to train your brain that you might find interesting.
DIET: Diets which include fish, fruits, nuts, and vegetables were determined to have a measurable positive impact on brain health. This is sometimes referred to by researchers as the “Mind Diet”. MIND stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. Specifically, the 10 brain-healthy foods recommended to eat are green leafy vegetables, other vegetables (ex: carrots, bell peppers), berries, nuts, beans/lentils/soybeans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil, and wine (in moderation). The 5 foods to limit are butter and margarine, cheese, red meat, fried food, pastries and sweets due to the high concentration of saturated fat and trans-fat.
SLEEP: I am a big believer in the value of getting enough quality sleep every night. I believe western culture encourages a lifestyle that robs us of this very important pillar of health while trying to replace the lack of sleep with caffeine and other artificial stimulants. Some believe that sleep allows the brain to perform important synapses repair, others that the brain washes out toxic substances while we sleep. Regardless of the actual physiological activity that happens to the brain while sleeping, getting consistent sleep is vital to a healthy brain and some even believe it may help fight Alzheimer’s.
SUMMARY: Tergesen wraps up her article by stating that “there is a growing consensus that when it comes to preserving brain health, the more healthy habits you adopt, the better”.
I hope this summary has inspired you to think about what new habits you can introduce into your daily life that will contribute long-term to a healthy brain. Rather than trying to tackle everything at once and risk discouragement at not achieving them all, I would encourage you to pick one area you know you can improve in right now and work on it until it becomes part of your lifestyle. Then, come back later and add another using these steps one at a time as building blocks to a long and healthy brain life!
P.S. To find more related material on this topic visit StevenDoggette.com