Seven Tips to a Healthy Aging Brain
As you get older, do you find that you have trouble remembering words? Do you have trouble multitasking? If so, you’re not alone! As you age, your brain undergoes changes that affect your cognitive functions. Add stress, inadequate sleep, sedentary lifestyles and not so great diets and you have the perfect storm. The good news is that diet and lifestyle changes can slow this decline, improving brain health. Read nutrition intern Maggie Ozcan’s guest post to get details on steps you can take now.
What happens to an aging brain?
As we age, our brains shrink. Yikes! The shrinkage occurs even more rapidly in those affected with Alzheimers or dementia. Scientists are not exactly sure why but it may be due to the result of buildup of protein toxins called beta-amyloids plaques. Having this type of buildup is dangerous because it blocks the neurons from getting proper nutrition and interferes with their functioning. Eventually these neurons die and cannot grow new ones to replace them.
What can we do to help our brain age gracefully?
So, what can we do to keep our brains neurons firing? Research on how to clear the protein toxins is emerging and while there are no definitive answers yet, there are lifestyle habits associated with a healthy brain and slowing the decline. The National Institute of Health’s Institute on Aging recommends that we make these seven changes to our lifestyle.
Seven tips to a healthy aging brain
Nutrients in your diet may lead to an improvement in brain health. Specifically, research has shown the MIND diet is associated in slowing cognitive decline. The MIND diet is a combination of the two healthy diets – the Mediterranean and the Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diets.
Major components of the MIND diet include:
-Veggies: Green leafy – at least 6 or more servings/week
Other veggies- at least 1 serving/day. Read my blog post on 10 Benefits of Eating Vegetables
-Berries: Any type – at least 2 or more servings/week – Research shows that the phytochemicals in the berries provide a protective effect and may delay neurodegenerative disease progression.
–Whole grains: preferably least processed- at least 3 servings/day
–Beans: Any type – 3 servings/week
–Seafood: mainly fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, etc.) – 1 serving/week
–Poultry: preferably organic – 2 or more servings/week
–Nuts: Any kind- 5 servings/week
–Red wine – 1 glass/day if you normally drink wine but be careful with alcohol because how the body metabolizes it varies with age?
Limit your intake of red meats, butter, margarines, cheese, pastries, sweets, fried and fast food.
So what is it about these foods that improve brain health? The simple answer is that they are packed with nutrients that benefit our bodies and brains including phytonutrients, prebiotics, vitamins, and minerals. Essentially, they are giving your brain the nutrients it needs to operate and act as anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agents to help keep it clean and maintained.
You know exercise has many health benefits. Here’s another one – it can improve brain health. Studies find that exercise improves your cognitive functioning and lowers the risk of developing Dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease. One study, a nurses’ study published in 2019, demonstrated that aerobic exercise provided a significant effect in improving cognitive function in elderly people with mild cognitive impairment. As you can see, it’s never not too late to benefit from starting an exercise routine. Check out my blog post on 51 Free Exercise Videos.
Manage blood pressure
The brain is highly vascularized. There are loads of tiny blood vessels supplying your brain with oxygen and nutrients. The American Heart Association reports that, “high blood pressure (hypertension) has been shown to damage the tiny blood vessels in the parts of your brain responsible for cognition and memory, greatly increasing your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia.” Tips to lower blood pressure include following the MIND diet, limiting sodium intake, regular exercise and managing stress.
Northwestern University conducted a study where they look at ‘SuperAgers’ (adults over 80 whose cognitive function is that of someone who is 20-30 years younger) and compared them to cognitively average for age, same aged adults to see if there was something about their psychological well-being that may have attributed to their SuperAger status. The only significant difference they found was in their ability to maintain positive relationships with others. Look, even your brain is telling it is good to have friends. A good way to make new friends is to volunteer.
Think about the last time something was really bothering you. You probably felt “foggy” and had trouble thinking clearly. Researchers have found that chronic stress has a ‘wear and tear’ effect on your brain that can impair both the structure and cognitive functioning. Meaning that if you stay in that fog for long enough it’s going to become the new normal. Finding ways to manage stress is so important in preventing this wear and tear. Mediation is great option. Not only can it help with stress management, but studies suggest that it may reduce blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Practicing yoga can also provide a positive impact on brain health. You can find both free and paid options for yoga and meditation, in the form of apps or on You Tube. Personally, I like the 10 Minute Mind for mediation and Yoga with Adrienne on YouTube.
Challenge your mind
Just like your muscles needs exercise to keep them strong, your brain needs mental exercise to keep it sharp. You could learn something new, like a language, an instrument, or a skill- like doing things with your non-dominant hand; play board games, cards, word games or puzzles. All these are cognitive-stimulating activities that require periods of focus and problem solving. While more research is needed in this area, observational studies have indicated an association between people who engage in mentally stimulating activities and decreased incidence risk of mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease. So get out the NYT crossword puzzle!
And last but not least is sleep. There is tons of ongoing research on the health benefits of sleep. – and brain health is one of them. I once heard an expert relate to what’s happening during deep sleep as the brain sort of running like a rinse cycle in the dishwasher; during deep sleep the flow of cerebrospinal increases and washes away the beta amyloids and other toxins that accumulate around the brain. How cool is that image? I’ll never be able to picture the brain the same again
- keep a consistent sleep and eating schedule (and finish eating at least 2 or 3 hours before bedtime)
- sleep in a cool dark room
- turn off the screens at least 2 hours before bedtime
- don’t use your bed for activities other than sleep and sex
- avoid or limit alcohol intake (especially close to bedtime)
- limit caffeine during the day and avoid consumption at night
- develop a relaxation routine around bedtime (i.e., yoga, deep breathing, reading, journaling)
- exercise daily
- don’t smoke
Like with everything else, no single lifestyle change will give you that magic pill effect in preventing Dementia or Alzheimer’s. But small changes add up! Besides, you’ll find many of the changes are more fun when performed in combination. Research also indicates that they create a more synergistic effect on brain health
I’d like to thank Maggie Ozcan for writing this blog post. Maggie is currently a dietetic intern at the CUNY School of Public Health. She returned to school later in life to study nutrition and dietetics and earned her B.S. at Queens College. She said that her interest in the science of nutrition was sparked when her son was small and allergic to many foods and that the fire has continued to burn ever since. Now that her kids have grown, she likes to spend her downtime outdoors, in nature, with her dog or playing tennis.
I especially love problem-solving, whether it’s helping women defeat issues plaguing them for years, helping a busy executive find practical ways to get heart healthy, or providing tips to help you reverse diabetes. That’s why I’m on a constant quest to expand my knowledge by staying on top of the latest research.