With many baby boomers encountering changes in their brain function—causing concern, and, let’s face it, amusement, at times— it is not surprising that boomers are looking for ways to hold on to their memory and increase cognitive ability.
Being vital until the end of life is something that everyone wishes for but not all of us are lucky enough to experience. According to the Alzheimer’s Association (alz.org), 44 percent of Americans between the ages of 75 and 84 have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, and by age 85 that number goes up to 50 percent. Those numbers are driving a whole new market of brain-enhancing health products, from supplements to video games, all aiming to increase cognitive ability. But will this do us any good? Are there proactive steps we can take to stop the deterioration of the brain as we age?
According to mounting evidence in the field of neuroscience, the answer appears to be yes. Research is revealing that the aging brain actually has more capacity to change and adapt than was previously thought. According to Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD, founder and chief director at the Center for BrainHealth in Dallas, Texas, it appears that the brain continues to develop neural pathways to adapt to new experiences, learn new information, and create new memories.1 In fact, studies show that the brain can actually get smarter as we age: the more new learning experiences we have, the more neural pathways we create, which means we can actually stockpile a larger network of neurons that can markedly slow down the process of cognitive decline. The more we develop in the brain now, the fewer years of decline we experience down the road.
Research conducted by the Center for Brain Health shows that older brains can be more receptive to pattern recognition, judgment, and accumulation of knowledge and experience, giving those over 50 an advantage over younger brains if—and that is a big if—the physical structure of the brain is not in decline.2 Physical decline of the brain, meaning the actual shrinkage and deterioration that begins in our forties, corresponds with cognitive decline. All of this is to say that brain health needs to be a priority for those heading into their forties and fifties to reap the most significant rewards.
The goal is to decrease stress on the brain, which breaks down brain function, and to build new neural pathways through mental stimulation. The good news is that building better brain health in your everyday life is easier than you might think.
- Reduce multitasking to help preserve brain function. Practice focusing on the most important thing at the moment instead of trying to cover everything all at once. This higher level of thinking actually means less dementia as we age.
- The brain does not like routine*,* so avoid robotic, automated behavior and take initiative to learn new behaviors. Simple things like changing your morning routine or learning to eat with your left hand will stimulate the brain.
- Repetitive mental stimulation*,* such as learning a new language or a new word every day, can improve performance of other tasks. Just think: improving your bridge game may actually improve your ability to drive a car.
- While “brain games,” video games, and subscription websites are flooding the market, there is no evidence that these things are more effective than learning new skills on your own. The key concept is new: branch out into new languages, sports, and other novel skills to stimulate to the brain.
All the information we are learning about how significant a role basic life functions—the way you eat, sleep, and move—play in maintaining brain health and preventing chronic health conditions like diabetes and heart disease emphasizes the value of living a healthy lifestyle.
6 Tips for Brain Health
Here are six lifestyle factors that can have an impact on brain health.
- Diet. Many foods have been linked to brain health, and new information about the role of diet continues to emerge. Some of what research is revealing includes the benefit of the anti-inflammatory properties of a plant-based Mediterranean diet, which includes healthy fats such as olive oil and high-fiber grains, in preventing cognitive decline;3 the impact of vitamin E, found in nuts and seeds, on the development of dementia; and the importance of decreasing the consumption of refined sugar and eating a limited amount of high fiber carbohydrates because research shows that dementia and Alzheimer’s may be due to “diabetes of the brain,” meaning insulin resistance in the brain that may cause loss of brain cells.4,5,6
- **Weight control.** An increasing body of evidence shows that being overweight in midlife increases risk factors for lower and faster decline in cognitive ability.7 Weight control aids in blood pressure control, which affects brain function. Slow, steady weight loss that is sustainable has great benefit to brain health.
- **Supplements.** Dietary supplements that have flooded the market have not been proven effective in slowing cognitive decline. It is not about one nutrient but the diet as a whole. An aspirin per day, however, has been shown to be effective due to its anti-inflammatory properties. Statin medication that is prescribed to prevent heart disease has been shown to provide the same benefit.
- **Sleep.** The brain actually does a lot of smart things while you sleep, so getting adequate sleep (seven to nine hours for the majority of us) can boost learning, attention, and memory. While sleeping, your brain practices new skills, sorts out memories for the future, and problem-solves, which is one of the reasons why “sleeping on it” often brings answers to problems.
- **Exercise.** Cardiovascular exercise is vital to brain health; it increases blood flow, delivering more nutrients to the brain. Most important, it increases brain derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), a protein that aids in the survival of brain cells. Any exercise helps, but the real benefit shows up when one is active at least three hours per week.
- **Stress management.** Stress and anxiety are associated with memory disorders. Stress can interfere with the function of neurotransmitters in the brain and create toxins that cause cell damage and shrinkage of the brain. Meditation, prayer, and other relaxation techniques along with more-intense therapies may be necessary to control stress. Downtime and relaxation improve higher level thinking and brain health.
The takeaway: we do not need to slow down mentally due to age. We can play a role in boosting our brain health, and the sooner we start thinking about preserving our brain, the better. Cognitive “resurrection” can make us stronger, smarter, and more decisive. By focusing on a healthy lifestyle that includes diet, exercise, sleep, and relaxation, we can improve our overall well-being and enjoy good health for years to come.
- What Is Plasticity? Center for Brain Health website. Available at http://www.brainhealth.utdallas.edu/blog_page/what-is-plasticity. Accessed March 21, 2014.
- Study Finds Brain Training Enhances Brain Health of Adults Over 50. Center for Brain Health website. Available at http://www.brainhealth.utdallas.edu/blog_page/study-finds-braintraining-enhances-brain-health-of-adults-over-50. Accessed March 21, 2014.
- Solfrizzi V, Panza F, Frisardi V, et al. Diet and Alzheimer’s disease risk factors or prevention:The current evidence. Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics. 2011;11(5):677-708.
- Roberts RO , Roberts LA , Geda YE , et al. Relative intake of macronutrients impacts risk of mild cognitive impairment or dementia. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. 2012;32(2):329-39. doi: 10.3233/JAD -2012-120862.
- Singh-Manoux A, Czernichow S, Elbaz A, et al. Obesity phenotypes in midlife and cognition in early old age: The Whitehall II cohort study. Neurology. 2010; 79(8):755-62. doi: 10.1212/WNL .0b013e3182661f63.
- De la Monte SM, Re E, Longato L, Tong M. Dysfunctional pro-ceramide, ER stress, and insulin/IGF signaling networks with progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. 2012;30(suppl. 2): S231-S269.
- Fitzpatrick AL , Kuller LH , Lopez OL , et al. Midlife and late-life obesity and the risk of dementia. Archives of Neurology. 2009;66(3):336-42. doi: 10.1001/archneurol.2008.582.
Food for a Healthy Brain
Studies show that it is not one magic food but a combination of foods that helps boost brain health. The following recommendations, based on the Mediterranean diet, are a good guideline for head-healthy eating.
- Limit servings of animal protein to 9 or 10 ounces per day for men and 6 or 8 ounces per day for women.
- Eat one serving of nuts or seeds every day. A serving size is roughly equivalent to 2 tablespoons natural nut butter or 1 ounce of nuts or seeds.
- Aim for three servings of fatty fish (such as sardines and salmon) per week.
- Eat seven to 10 servings per day of fruits and vegetables.
- Consume healthy fats such as olive, canola, grape seed, avocado, and nut oils.
- Eat whole grains such as oatmeal, farro, quinoa, barley, and whole-grain bread and cereals.
- Eat beans and lentils.
- Choose nonfat dairy products.
- Drink 5 ounces wine, red or white, per day. Any wine, or 1 ounce of alcohol, per day lowers low density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad” cholesterol) and reduces the risk of stroke. Anything more than that moderate amount, however, increases blood pressure.
- Use more spices and herbs and less salt.
- Avoid foods and drinks with added refined sugars.