It’s common knowledge that information recalled in a split second in youth becomes harder and harder to extract in the golden years. Up until fairly recently, scientists and people alike were resigned to the fact that some brain function goes by the wayside with aging. After all, it’s a fact that gray matter shrinks as the years go by. Thankfully, several research studies show that preserving brain function with brain enhancing pills and maybe even warding off Alzheimer’s and other dementias may be possible through lifestyle and diet changes.
Lifestyle Changes That Help Protect Your Brain
Regular physical activity as well as controlling or even better, preventing chronic conditions such as obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure can help your brain keep its edge.
- Physical activity: Yet another good reason to get moving! Indeed, several research studies have found a link between higher exercise levels and lower rate of cognitive decline. Deborah E. Barnes, PhD, MPH, of the University of California-San Francisco, and colleagues found that activity such as walking for 20-30 minutes a day helped seniors retain more cognitive skills when compared to sedentary seniors (Alz. Dem. J Alz. Ass. 5:104). Arthur Kramer, professor of human perception and performance at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has also researched the benefit of exercise to the brain. His research had people aged 60 to 80 do aerobic exercise such as brisk walking three days a week for 45 minutes a day. The results were impressive: after six months the participants showed increase in volume of gray matter in several regions of the brain (one of which was the hippocampus), which is involved in relational memory (remembering where you met someone or where you heard a particular statement) (J Gerontol. A Biol. Sci. Med. Sci. 61: 1166).
- Maintain or achieve a healthy weight: Those love handles may be bad news for your brain. In fact, research suggest that increased abdominal fat in middle age raises risk of dementia later on (Neurology 71: 1057). Visceral fat, or fat deep around abdominal organs acts like an active organ itself, secreting hormones that can increase insulin level and in turn can lead to type 2 diabetes. This is problematic for two reasons: 1) higher blood insulin has been shown to cause a faster drop on verbal memory and other test scores in non-diabetic women and men, and 2) type 2 diabetes (closely related to higher insulin level and obesity), raises the risk of brain function decline (J. Am. Geriatr. Soc. 56: 1026, 2008; Neuroepidemol. 30: 17; Am. J. Geriatr. Psychiatry 14: 1041).
- Prevent or control high blood pressure: Studies have found a strong link between high blood pressure in midlife and late-life cognitive decline (JAMA 274: 1846, 1995; Neurobiol. Aging 21: 49). Hypertension can lead to strokes, which can of course cause brain damage. However, a large stroke isn’t necessary to cause loss of brain function as people age. Several small strokes (called small infarcts) over time can also produce damage. Consider following the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) for an effective way to control high blood pressure.
Food Choices That Help Protect Your Brain
Following the Mediterranean diet, increasing vegetable, fruit, and fish intake can do your brain good.
- The Mediterranean diet may help keep your brain young. Research has shown that consuming a Mediterranean-type diet high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and fish; and lower in meat and dairy products along with a moderate alcohol intake (mostly red wine) and olive oil use, decreases risk of late-life mental decline (Arch. Neurol. 63: 1709; JAMA 302 (6): 62; JAMA 302 (6): 638). Researchers speculate that the Mediterranean diet has a protective effect because it includes foods rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids- compounds thought to be protective against loss of brain function.
- Boost vegetable and fruit intake for an antioxidant punch: Although studies looking at antioxidants such as vitamin C, E, and beta-carotene are not all conclusive, consuming higher intakes of produce (between five and nine servings per day) can only have positive results on your overall health. Many studies done on antioxidants have looked at the effect of high dose supplementation on mental function and most have not been promising. However, research on the Mediterranean diet had shown positive results in regards to maintaining brain power as well as preventing other chronic diseases- perhaps because antioxidants have a synergic effect in which they work together more efficiently than alone.
- Include more fish in your diet: The main omega-3 fatty acid found in the brain is DHA. Intake of this important fat has declined radically in the U.S. DHA is found mostly in cold water fish such as salmon, mackerel, halibut, and sardines. Some research studies have linked omega-3 fatty acids to cognitive function protection (Dement. Geriatr. Cogn. Disord. 21: 88). Strive for 2 servings of fish per week, particularly cold water fish.
Forgetting where you parked your car and the name of an acquaintance doesn’t have to be an every day occurrence in the golden years. Keeping chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure in check through exercise and proper food choices can help keep both your body and mind young.