It’s through your brain and senses that you interact with the world around you. Shockingly, if you laid all the blood vessels in your brain end to end, they would stretch almost 100,000 miles! Unfortunately, your brain ages along with the rest of your body. Your brain that once so easily remembered the names of everyone you met now struggles to recall someone you saw a few months ago. Plus, it becomes harder to learn new tasks as the years go on. The good news? You’ve accumulated a lot of wisdom. In addition, there’s mounting evidence that you can slow brain aging through healthy lifestyle changes. What are these brain-friendly lifestyle habits?
Brain Aging: Engage in Aerobic Exercise
Exercise is powerful medicine for all the organs in your body and your brain is no exception. With age, your brain shrinks in size, especially areas of the brain involved in memory and learning. As you lose brain size, you find it harder to remember things that once easily popped into your head. Aerobic exercise is one of the only things that can boost the size of these contracting brains areas, including the hippocampus and pre-frontal cortex. Plus, aerobic exercise helps battle brain aging in other ways: by reducing inflammation, boosting blood flow to the brain, and by stimulating the release of growth factors that keep brain cells healthy. Regular aerobic exercise even helps your brain form new connections. So, to hang onto your cognitive function, invest in a pair of exercise shoes!
Brain Aging: Get More Omega-3s
The membranes that surround each brain cell are made up of a fatty bilayer. One of the fats in these membranes are omega-3s, a type of fat abundant in fatty fish. Omega-3s keep the membranes of brain cells, and all cells, fluid. A fluid membrane is important for brain and nerve cell function and for communication between cells. Plus, omega-3s have an anti-inflammatory effect. As you may know, inflammation damages cells and important structures with those cells, including the energy-producing mitochondria and DNA. In fact, inflammation is thought to play a role in aging, in general. Some, but not all, studies show a link between higher intake of omega-3s and a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Interestingly, a study showed that omega-3s could potentially reduce damage to the brain that occurs with stroke.
Getting more omega-3s, from sources like fatty fish or fish oil, also helps balance the abundance of omega-6s most people get in their diet, thanks to the easy availability of processed foods. A high ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s is linked with inflammation and eating more omega-3 rich foods helps bring that ratio down. So, help yourself to a serving of fatty fish twice a week.
Brain Aging: Sleep Soundly and Manage Stress
Both lack of sleep and chronic stress speed up brain aging. When researchers at Duke University compared the sleep duration of participants with their brain scans and cognitive function over a 2-year period, they found those who slept less experienced more rapid signs of brain aging and a faster decline in cognitive skills. How much sleep is enough? According to the researchers, around seven hours is optimal.
Chronic stress too takes its toll on the health of your brain. Researchers at Yale found, using imaging studies, that stressful events and circumstances reduce gray matter in areas of the brain involved in emotion and self-control. In animals, chronic stress reduces the size of a structure in the brain called the hippocampus, a portion involved in memory formation.
Fortunately, stress reduction modalities, such as yoga, meditation, and even deep breathing techniques help calm stress. Exercise, too, alleviates stress by its positive impact on brain chemicals, like serotonin, and by boosting the release of natural stress-reducers called endorphins. So, having a strategy for relieving stress is essential for preserving brain health as you age.
Brain Aging: Avoid Micronutrient Deficiencies
Your brain demands a constant supply of oxygen and energy to work properly. With so much cellular activity going on, it’s not surprising that the brain is prone toward oxidative stress. Deficiencies in micronutrients can reduce brain function short-term and contribute to brain aging longer term. While you need a balanced array of vitamins and minerals for healthy brain function, deficiency of B-vitamins, particularly vitamin B12 and folate can have a devastating impact on brain function. In fact, vitamin B12 deficiency can cause similar cognitive dysfunction to what you see with Alzheimer’s disease, not to mention, it can permanently damage peripheral nerves.
Vitamin B12 deficiency becomes more common with age due to absorption issues. Vegans are also at high risk of vitamin B12 deficiency since you only find it naturally in meat and dairy foods. Make sure you’re eating a whole food diet that contains a variety of foods to ensure you get enough of each micronutrient. If you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, take a vitamin B12 supplement.
Brain Aging: Stay a Healthy Body Weight
Being overweight or obese raises your risk of type 2 diabetes. Poorly controlled diabetes accelerates brain shrinkage and magnifies the effects of normal brain aging. Plus, diabetes is linked with atherosclerosis, a condition that reduces blood flow to the brain and increases the risk of stroke.
Obesity, itself, is harmful to brain health. Your brain and nervous system are composed of white matter and gray matter. Gray matter is made up of the bodies of nerve cells. These nerve cells can’t communicate with one another without the help of white matter. White matter in the brain aids communication between nerve cells and with the rest of the body. As we age, we lose white matter. However, being obese may speed up this loss. One study found that the white matter in the brain of a 50-year-old obese individual was similar to that of a 60-year old. So, being obese could age your brain by as much as 10 years.
The Bottom Line
So, now you know five ways you can slow brain aging as you grow older. Doing these things is also good for your heart as well!
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