Ever have a senior moment? We all forget things and make silly mistakes that make us question whether our brain is aging too fast. The good news is there’s a lot you can do from a lifestyle standpoint to keep your brain healthy and your cognitive skills sharp as you grow older. A recent study carried out in the United Kingdom followed a group of middle-aged men for 35 years to see what lifestyle habits were important for keeping the gray matter in your brain healthy and Slow Down Brain Aging: cognitive skills intact.
Based on this study, researchers identified five healthy lifestyle habits that appear to slow down brain aging. They found these habits also lower the risk for other chronic diseases including heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. What CAN you do to keep your brain healthy and reduce the risk of cognitive decline?
Slow Down Brain Aging: Follow a Healthy Diet
Yes, diet does play a role in brain health. Although the term “healthy” is a bit vague, some research shows eating a Mediterranean diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, lean protein sources (low in red meat and high in fish) and healthy fats from sources like olive oil and nuts improves brain health and cognition. As a bonus, the Mediterranean diet is “heart-healthy” as well. Fruits and vegetables are a rich source of antioxidants that may reduce oxidative damage to brain cells. In general, what’s good for your heart is also good for your brain – so enjoy those fruits and veggies in abundance.
Slow Down Brain Aging: Maintain a Healthy Body Weight
This study supports previous research that shows maintaining a healthy body weight lowers the risk for cognitive decline and dementia. Being significantly overweight or obese during mid-life appears to increase the risk of dementia later on. Interestingly, some studies also show underweight individuals who have a low BMI during their senior years may be at higher risk for cognitive decline. Maintaining a HEALTHY weight is the key.
Slow Down Brain Aging: Exercise Regularly
Is exercise the fountain of youth? There’s not much it doesn’t lower the risk of – and that includes cognitive decline. This current study confirms the brain-enhancing benefits of exercise – as long as you do it regularly.
Aerobic exercise increases production of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF that protects existing nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord and helps existing nerve cells form new connections. It also strengthens existing connections between nerve cells, thereby enhancing memory and cognitive function. Those stronger connections come in handy when you left your grocery list at home and have to remember what’s on it.
Vigorous exercise appears to stimulate the production of BDNF more than exercising at a leisurely pace. Another study showed older people who exercised had less brain atrophy or shrinkage over a three year period than those that didn’t. Keep moving!
Slow Down Brain Aging: Don’t Smoke
Not smoking – that’s a no-brainer. Smoking isn’t just bad for your lungs – it damages blood vessels, including the ones that feed oxygen and nutrients to your brain. One study showed smoking as little as one cigarette a day over time negatively impacts cognitive function. Imagine what smoking a pack or day or more does?
Slow Down Brain Aging: Limit the Amount of Alcohol You Drink
Too much alcohol isn’t good for your brain but combine it with smoking and it’s a double whammy. A study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found heavy smokers and drinkers experienced a 36% faster cognitive decline. That doesn’t mean you have to avoid alcohol entirely. Some research shows moderate alcohol (1-3 drinks a day) may lower the risk for dementia. The key is moderation and, if you’re going to use alcohol, red wine may be the best choice due to its high level of brain-friendly antioxidants.
Slow Down Brain Aging: How Much Benefit Can You Expect By Doing These Things?
Based on this study, if you were to follow four out of five of these healthy lifestyle habits, you’d lower your risk for cognitive decline and dementia by as much as 60%. As the researchers in this study point out, making these lifestyle changes has more benefit than medical treatments that are currently available. In addition, when you do these things you also lower your risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
The bad news, based on the results of this study, is not enough people are doing these five things, or even four or them – but that doesn’t have to apply to you. When you stick with these healthy lifestyle habits you’re not only protecting your brain – you’re lowering your risk for a number of chronic diseases, making it easier to control your weight and improving the way you look and feel.
The Bottom Line?
Lifestyle is powerful medicine. You have some degree of control over your physical destiny even if you have “not so good” genetics. Making healthy lifestyle choices can influence whether or not those genes are expressed. Begin by making sure you’re doing all five of these things to protect your health.
BMJ Group. “Mediterranean diet seems to boost aging brain power”
Men’s Journal. “Quit Smoking, Improve Brain Function”
BJPsych. “Combined impact of smoking and heavy alcohol use on cognitive decline in early old age: Whitehall II prospective cohort study”
Medical News Today. “Five Healthy Behaviors Lower Dementia Risk, Study Shows”
JAMA Neurology. March 2009, Vol 66, No. 3.
Science Daily. “Exercise the Body to Keep the Brain Healthy, Study Suggests”
Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007 Apr;39(4):728-34.
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