Healthy aging is a lifelong process. We want to optimize opportunities for improving and preserving all aspects of health: physical, social and mental wellness and independence. We all want to live a long life, but also, a life that is meaningful, with quality to our days, not merely quantity.

How can we promote quality of life and enhance successful life-course transitions through an understanding of brain health? What do we need to do now to protect our futures and ensure the next 20, 30 or 40 years involve healthy aging? For most of us, one of the major issues is brain health. We want to “be ourselves” and do whatever we can to prevent memory loss, maintain independence and avoid isolation.

Understanding women and brain health

Brain health is of particular concern for women, who comprise 70 per cent of new Alzheimer’s cases. Women, who are also are much more likely to be caregivers, are often diagnosed much later in the process of cognitive decline than men.

Diagnosing dementia in women often happens in later stages because they score well in tests despite loss of cognitive ability. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Liza.

Why? Don’t women see their doctors when something isn’t right? Yes, they do; however, women have better verbal skills than men (as a general rule) and often score better in cognitive testing than male counterparts. They are able to find vocabulary or compensate for some memory loss. The result? They do well on the test despite a loss of cognitive ability. Thus, women often go undiagnosed for months to years, which means they often don’t receive early treatment: Most of the drugs on the market are meant to be used as early as possible to protect the brain. When a significant amount of decline has already occurred, the drugs are not as effective.

Take action to protect brain function

So what can we do to prevent cognitive decline, protect our brains and slow the process of impairment? One of the best ways to improve blood flow to the brain is exercise. We all are aware that exercise is important for muscles, hearts, flexibility and posture but we need now to focus on our brains. Studies show that exercise increases brain derived neuro-tropic factor (BDNF), which is critical for neural plasticity — the brain’s ability to adapt.

Exercise plays an important role in brain health. Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Jen Theodore.

And we all need to adapt at some point to stresses, physical or mental, often traumatic and unexpected. Exercise is associated with the growth and creation of new brain cells, which helps increase the volume of your brain. You may think: “I have a busy, hectic schedule, managing all kinds of needs both at work and at home. My brain is busy.” True, but hectic does NOT equal aerobic. The brain needs focused, intentional exercise to achieve that increase in blood flow, that positive impact of nerves, cells and brain connections. We want those endorphins, those hormones to be elevated and to have a positive impact on our brains.

What’s good for the heart is good for the brain

What else can we do? We can learn new things and exercise our minds. Social engagement is very important. People who are isolated, alone and lonely do much worse with respect to both heart and brain diseases. Staying connected, participating, learning and interacting are all ways to protect our long-term health.

There are many prevention measures that are both heart healthy and brain healthy. Although it may seem obvious that includes not smoking. Unfortunately many people still smoke and many young people are seemingly unaware of the ongoing risk to health. Maintaining a normal blood pressure and weight, as well as maintaining low cholesterol, will help keep arteries open and clear to transport blood to the brain. Healthy diet, good weight and exercise are familiar, but all are key to healthy aging and a healthy brain.

I have the honour of being a board member of the Women’s Brain Health Initiative, a charitable organization focused on education and raising money for research in Women’s Brain Health. The website is very educational for both men and women. I would encourage you to start there, learn something new today, and then share that information with friends and family.

Dr. Vivien Brown (shown above) is a family physician in Toronto, a well-known national and international speaker and author of A Woman’s Guide to Healthy Aging – Seven Essential Ways to Keep You Vital, Happy and Strong. She is vice president of Medical Affairs, Medisys Health Group, focusing on advancing and promoting preventative healthcare. Dr. Brown is active in numerous organizations including, past president of the Federation of Medical Women of Canada, former chair of the consumer education committee for the North American Menopause Society, board member of the Women’s Brain Health Initiative and Health Choices First, plus numerous provincial and federal advisory bodies. www.drvivienbrown.com