- New research links certain healthy habits to a sharper brain as we age.
- The study followed participants for more than two decades.
- Doctors say these are good habits to follow for your brain and overall health.
There is a general recipe for living well that includes regular physical activity, eating a healthy diet, and avoiding smoking. Now, new research finds five factors that can also help support brain health and sharp thinking as we age.
The study, which was published in JAMA Neurology, analyzed the autopsies of 586 people who lived to an average age of 91 years. Those study participants took part in the Rush Memory and Aging Project before their deaths, which involved them undergoing regular physical and mental testing, along with annual questionnaires about their lifestyles to learn more. 20 years old.
The researchers found a direct link between healthy lifestyle habits and a lower risk of cognitive decline as participants aged; That was true even in people who had characteristic signs of developing Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Lead author of the study Klodian Dhana, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of geriatrics and palliative medicine at the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging, says his team wanted to see if certain factors could influence whether someone develops Alzheimer’s or dementia. “As individuals age, there is a progressive accumulation of dementia-related brain pathologies,” she says. However, not everyone develops dementia, despite these changes in the brain. The goal of the study, Dr. Dhana says, was to see if lifestyle factors would make a difference in someone’s likelihood of developing dementia.
This is what Dr. Dhana and his team discovered.
Factors to improve brain health
Study participants were labeled as low risk or living a healthy lifestyle if they did the following:
- No Smoking.
- Do moderate to vigorous exercise for at least 150 minutes a week.
- Limit alcohol consumption to one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men.
- Engage in brain-stimulating activities, such as reading, playing games, and visiting museums.
- Follow a variation of the MIND diet.
Study participants received a healthy lifestyle score in these areas, and the healthier they were, the better their brain health. The researchers found that for every one-point increase in the healthy lifestyle score, the lower the number of beta-amyloid plaques (hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease) and the higher their score on cognitive tests that looked at factors such as memory and the attention span.
A editorial that was published alongside the study noted that the benefits of following these healthy lifestyle factors were still there, regardless of whether the study participants had signs of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in their brains.
Why are these habits good for the brain?
In the beginning, you know that these lifestyle factors and habits are good for you. “Following a healthy lifestyle is good for the brain,” says Amit Sachdev, MD, MS, medical director of the Department of Neurology at Michigan State University.
These factors in particular “have been researched and shown to be associated with slower cognitive decline and a lower risk of dementia,” says Dr. Dhana.
While plant-based diets have been linked to healthier brains, the MIND diet is a specific type of plant-based diet. It incorporates several elements of the Mediterranean diet, such as lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, olive oil, and whole grains, explains Jessica Cording, MS, RD, author of The Little Book of Revolutionaries: 50 Healthy Habits to Control Stress and Anxiety.
“Previous studies on similar dietary patterns have shown that this style of eating is very rich in polyphenols, which are powerful plant compounds that have been shown to have neuroprotective properties,” says Cording. “That’s a big piece of the puzzle.” The foods included in this diet can help reduce inflammation in the body and promote good gut and heart health, she notes.
That diet, along with regular exercise, limiting alcohol consumption and avoiding smoking, is good for the cardiovascular system, Cording says. “What’s good for the heart and blood vessels is generally good for the brain; we have tons of blood vessels in the brain,” she says.
Clifford Segil, DO, a neurologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA., agrees. “A healthy lifestyle increases heart health and brain health,” she says. “A healthy heart can only help your brain.”
Investigation It has also found that engaging in mentally stimulating activities is linked to a lower risk of developing dementia. “What I most often recommend to patients for their brain health is structured cognitive exercise,” says Dr. Segil. “That may mean taking a class at a university. With muscles, if you don’t use them, you lose them. The same goes for your brain.”
Dr. Segil emphasizes the importance of healthy lifestyle habits for brain health, noting that he sees patients do better after making lifestyle adjustments than taking certain medications to reduce the risk of cognitive decline. .
Overall, Dr. Dhana says the lifestyle factors established in his study may help provide cognitive benefits over time. But, if he’s concerned about his own risk of dementia or has a family history of the disease, he recommends consulting a doctor for personalized recommendations.
Korin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, sexual health and relationships, and lifestyle trends, and her work appears in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Self, Glamor, and more. She has a master’s degree from American University, lives by the beach, and hopes to one day own a teacup pig and a taco truck.