To maintain a healthy brain – and therefore healthy memory, efforts should be made to maintain a healthy body overall. By promoting healthier brain and body aging, there is a real chance that you can reduce your risk of dementia and cognitive decline. This article discusses what can be done to ensure that you allow your brain to age healthily to reduce your risk of developing dementia in later life.
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The most important way to ensure you have a healthy brain is to ensure you have a healthy heart. The brain weighs just 2% of all the body weight but receives 20% of all the blood flow in the body, every minute.
If you have an increased risk of coronary heart disease, atherosclerosis, and hypertension – then you increase the risk of developing many brain diseases such as stroke and dementia.
Consuming a diet rich in monounsaturated fats, fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and fish (also known as the Mediterranean diet) has been shown in studies to the best diet in terms of bodily and brain health.
The Mediterranean diet also limits the consumption of red meats, refined grains, and sugar. In terms of fats, the primary oil used is extra virgin olive oil – which compared to other oils is the healthiest.
In a study by Scarmeas et al, people who moderately adhered to a Mediterranean diet over 1.5 years had a 15-20% reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, whereas those that strictly adhered to it had a 40% reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
In addition to the Mediterranean diet being amongst the healthiest in terms of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases, the Japanese Okinawan diet has also been long suggested to be important in the longevity of people living in the Ryukyu Islands in Japan.
Much like the Mediterranean diet, the Okinawan diet also focuses on fresh vegetables, legumes with a reduced intake of refined grains, sugar, salt, and dairy – but the key difference is that calorie restriction, meaning they will eat until hunger has subsided rather than feeling full.
Incorporating colorful vegetables (yellow, red, orange, and green) is also important to achieve an intake of various minerals, antioxidants, and vitamins.
Based on such diets, the common ground is the consumption of green leafy vegetables, colorful vegetables and fruits, nuts, grains, fish (rich in omega-3 – see the article on Omega-3 and Alzheimer’s disease), poultry, olive oils – whilst limiting the consumption of refined grains, sugars, salt, red meats, dairy, and fried foods.
This diet is known as the DASH (dietary approaches to stop hypertension) and MIND (Mediterranean-DASH intervention for the neurodegenerative delay).
A study by Morris et al, found Mediterranean diets and DASH/MIND diets to be neuroprotective and those that adhered to such diets strictly had much less deterioration in cognitive abilities with lower cardiovascular conditions.
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All of these diets utilize a high proportion of monounsaturated fats (e.g. olive oil) and avoid any use (or limited use) of trans-unsaturated fatty acids that are particularly abundant in processed foods.
These include partially hydrogenated oils and are known to raise blood cholesterol levels (LDL) which can lead to atherosclerosis and hyperlipidemia – increasing the risks of developing heart disease and stroke.
Incorporating foods and drinks rich in anti-inflammatory agents and antioxidants has also been shown to be neuroprotective.
These include polyphenol-rich products that include tea and coffee, as well as cocoa flavonoids found in dark chocolate – especially if used in early and mid-life, but they have limited beneficial effects on patients with cognitive impairments.
Physical activity has long been shown to have many beneficial effects for the body, by increasing blood flow and oxygen levels. Studies have shown that exercise can increase the levels of a key neurotrophic factor (brain supporting agent) called BDNF, which promotes the growth and maintenance of neurons.
In a study by Colcombe et al, who investigated whether aerobic exercise (e.g. running, swimming, tennis, cycling over 10mph) led to brain changes, found that aerobic exercise led to increased brain volumes in specific regions associated with age-related cognitive decline leading to better brain structure and cognition levels.
Aerobic exercise is protective of mild cognitive impairment in mid-life compared to non-aerobic exercises such as stretching (yoga).
Notwithstanding that, even spending less time sitting can offset some of the effects of a sedentary lifestyle e.g. standing desks, or light activity such as brisk walking, gardening, or dancing.
Furthermore, the American Heart Association has made the recommendation of 150 minutes per week (spread out) of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise and 2 or more days a week of moderate-intensity weight training to support physical and cognitive health overall.
This is because aerobic exercise has been shown to improve glucose metabolism and upon the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, to reduce cortisol levels, and increasing trophic (BDNF) activity.
Increasing one’s activity to at least 300 minutes (5 hours) per week (spread out) can further enhance the beneficial effects of aerobic exercise, but even light or moderate-intensity exercise has positive outcomes.
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Ensuring you get a good sleep of at least 7-8 hours during the night (or within a day) is needed to maintain a good body and brain health, as well as boosting the immune system.
Sleep deficiency is linked to many chronic health conditions ranging from cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, stroke, and depression. Lack of sleep reduces attention, alertness, and leads to emotional and behavioral changes.
Sleep deprivation and deficiency can lead to Alzheimer’s disease were shown in two studies looking at sleep deprivation and brain amyloid and tau levels. A study by Shokri-Kojori et al looked at the effects of sleep deprivation of beta-amyloid clearance.
They found that after just one night’s sleep deprivation (in 20 healthy adults), there was a significantly increased amyloid-burden in the hippocampus and thalamus. Another study by Lucey et al found that reduced non-REM sleep (i.e. deep wave sleep) was associated with increased tau-pathology in early Alzheimer’s disease.
These studies show how even the slightest sleep disturbances can lead to increased Alzheimer’s pathology, therefore, ensuring you have good sleep hygiene is essential for a healthy brain.
Insomnia and sleep apnoea are fairly common sleep disorders that affect large amounts of the population. In these circumstances, seeking medical advice on how to manage these conditions early on is of great importance – not only for one’s physical health but also to prevent long term emotional, behavioral, and cognitive changes.
Other studies have suggested that a total of 8 hours of sleep could be spread out over 24 hours and that napping (totaling 8 hours with night sleep in 24 hours) could also be sufficient. Regular napping may be more beneficial in older individuals than young-mid age people.
Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s adaptation continuously through life in which it can make more synaptic connections in the process of active learning and consolidating new memories, knowledge, and skills. By making more connections, more synaptic death needs to occur before cognitive decline can occur.
By actively training your brain, you can use neuroplasticity to your benefit by increasing the number of synaptic connections and thus maintaining cognitive ability as we age, and by reducing the speed of cognitive decline.
Cognitively stimulating activities can include mind-teaser games such as specific apps, crosswords, and sudoku, educational activities such as quizzes, intellectual inquiries, and mental challenges.
In summary, maintaining a healthy body by reducing your risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Keeping physically active; even if it is a moderate-intensity activity for a few hours a week, consuming nutrient-rich foods and limiting processed refined and sugary foods, ensuring you have good night’s sleep, and by keeping mentally active – you can reduce your risk of greater cognitive decline and dementia.
Boosting your body’s health can lead to improvements in memory and cognition and efforts should be made to adopt a healthy and active lifestyle to ensure you reduce your risks of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases that can negatively impact memory and brain health.
- Mintzer et al, 2019. Lifestyle Choices and Brain Health. Frontiers in Medicine (Lausanne) 6:204 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31637242
- Scarmeas et al, 2006. Mediterranean diet and risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Annals of Neurology 59(6):912-21 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16622828/
- Morris et al, 2015. MIND diet slows cognitive decline with aging. Alzheimer’s and Dementia 11(9):1015-22 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26086182/
- McFall et al, 2019. Modifiable Risk Factors Discriminate Memory Trajectories in Non-Demented Aging: Precision Factors and Targets for Promoting Healthier Brain Aging and Preventing Dementia. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 70(s1): S101-S118. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30775975
- Colcombe et al, 2004. Cardiovascular Fitness, Cortical Plasticity, and Aging. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS) 101(9):3316-21. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14978288/
- Lucey et al, 2019. Reduced non-rapid eye movement sleep is associated with tau pathology in early Alzheimer's disease. Science Translational Medicine 11(474) PII:eaau6550 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30626715
- Shokri-Kojori et al, 2018. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA (PNAS) 115(17):4483-4488 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29632177
Last Updated: May 8, 2020
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