Brain health and healthy aging go hand in hand. We all want to live a long life, but with quality to our days, not merely quantity. This means taking action now to protect our brains so that as we age, we sustain the ability to remember, learn, engage, maintain a clear mind and enjoy life. Here’s how:
- Exercise As we get older, our brains shrink due to reduced blood supply. One of the best ways to stave off shrinkage is exercise, which boosts blood supply to the brain and can actually increase your brain volume. Exercise further increases brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which is critical for neural plasticity – a fancy way of saying our brain’s ability to adapt.TIP It’s only natural that we experience varying forms of stress and even trauma. However, a healthy brain with neuroplasticity will better weather these storms.
- The MIND diet A diet that is rich in vegetables, fruits, legumes and lean protein is good for our bodies and our brains: Studies show those who eat more vegetables experience less risk of cognitive decline than their peers who eat fewer vegetables. The Mediterranean–DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (or MIND) diet is specifically designed to reduce the risk of dementia, while slowing the loss of brain function that can happen with age. In a nutshell, the MIND diet is a combination of the low-sodium Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet and the Mediterranean diet – it even allows some wine on a daily basis. (Okay, I’m in!)
TIP It’s hard to follow any diet 100 percent, but research shows that even moderate adherence, most of the time, pays off.
- Be social Research shows that regular interactions and strong connections with friends and family not only lead to a longer, better quality of life, but also stimulate us in a way that protects the brain. Whether through work, sport, volunteer efforts or social engagements, the more you do, the more you will be able to do as you age. Loneliness is linked to heart disease, and we know that isolation can increase the risk of dementia.
TIP Learning and socializing are exercise for your brain.
- Think fatty fish and omega-3 The fatty acids EPA and DHA are critical for normal brain function and development throughout all stages of life. In older adults, however, lower levels of DHA in the blood are associated with smaller brain size, which, as we now know, accelerates aging. Eat about 12 ounces (340 grams) per week – or three to four servings – of fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, including salmon, halibut, herring, mackerel, oysters, sardines, trout and fresh tuna.
TIP I tend to take omega-3 tablets at night, but if I’ve had fatty fish that day, I skip the dose. Otherwise, I take omega-3 along with my vitamin D and multivitamin. Good to go!
- Reduce stress While some stress can be a good thing – it helps the brain cope with life-threatening situations – too much is harmful. Long-term stress, for instance, can raise cortisol levels, leading to weight gain. Chronic, unrelenting stress is a major problem because it takes not only an emotional toll, but also a physical toll as it ages our telomeres, those caps on the ends of chromosomes that protect our cells.
TIP Meditation and other activities that reduce stress help increase the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your brain.
Women experience depression, stroke and dementia twice as much as men, and an astounding 70 percent of new Alzheimer’s patients will be women. The Women’s Brain Health Initiative creates educational programs and funds research to combat brain-aging diseases that affect women. www.womensbrainhealth.org