5 Simple Steps to Maximise Your Brain HealthFebruary 15 2019
5 Simple Steps to Maximise Your Brain Health is an important component of Alzheimer’s Australia’s dementia risk reduction program, Your Brain Matters, and emphasises how preventive health measures can benefit your brain health.
It shows you how to look after your brain health and has been developed by Alzheimer’s Australia based on published research evidence.
Being brain healthy is particularly important once you reach middle age as this is when changes start to occur in the brain.
To lead a brain healthy life you need to look after your brain, your body and your heart – the earlier the better. Scientific research suggests that leading a brain healthy life may reduce a person’s risk of developing dementia later in life.
There are no guarantees however, as dementia cannot yet be prevented or cured but evidence does show that people can reduce their risk for dementia and other chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer by adopting healthy lifestyles.
Think of your brain as being on a pedestal and that your role is to guard this most precious asset by making sure it is well nourished with good nutrition choices while enjoying the benefits of physical activity and mental challenges.
It is never too late to switch to a healthier lifestyle. You don’t need to start doing expensive new brain-training programs either – although they may be helpful – much of what you need to do to enjoy good brain health are simple things that you can easily do in your everyday life to lower your risk of dementia.
Step 1 – Look After Your Heart
Many people are unaware of the connection between heart health and brain health which is why we like to say, ‘what’s good for your heart is good for your brain’. The risk of developing dementia appears to increase as a result of conditions that affect the heart or blood vessels, particularly when these occur at mid-life.
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Type 2 diabetes
Research indicates that having diabetes, high cholesterol or high blood pressure, and not treating them effectively, can damage the blood vessels in the brain, affecting brain function and thinking skills. Obesity is associated with increased risk for dementia, and other conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and vascular disease.
Untreated high blood pressure, specifically in mid-life has been associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Promisingly, treatment of mid-life high blood pressure has been found to reduce dementia risk. High blood pressure in old age is not seen to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease but is undesirable at any age.
Treatment of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and obesity is necessary for good heart health and is likely also to protect brain health. They are all conditions that are easily identified and treatable.
It’s important to have regular health checks and follow the advice of your health professional.
Smoking increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer and other diseases. Studies have shown that current smokers have a greater chance of developing dementia than people who don’t smoke. There is no safe level of smoking.
If you do smoke, seek medical advice on ways to help you quit, especially as it appears the increased risk reduces once you do. The National Heart Foundation of Australia says there is clear evidence of a rapid decrease of cardiovascular risk following cessation of smoking and that quitting smoking can rapidly reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke (The National Heart Foundation, Policy Paper: Tobacco and cardiovascular disease, 2007).
Step 2 – Do Some Physical Activity
Now, more than ever, there is strong evidence that regular physical activity is associated with better brain function and reduced risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Exercise gives our brains a healthy boost.
Physical activity increases blood flow to the brain, stimulates the growth of brain cells and the connections between them, and is associated with larger brain volume. It reduces the risk of high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol, which are associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia.
There is some evidence that suggests people who don’t do regular physical activity have an increased risk of developing dementia. It is still unclear just how much and how often we should exercise specifically to reduce our risk of dementia.
We recommend following the National Physical Activity Guidelines. For adults aged 18-64, the guidelines recommend:
- Doing any physical activity is better than doing none. If you currently do no physical activity, start by doing some, and gradually build up to the recommended amount.
- Be active on most, preferably all, days every week.
- Accumulate 150 to 300 minutes (2 ½ to 5 hours) of moderate intensity physical activity or 75 to 150 minutes (1 ¼ to 2 ½ hours) of vigorous intensity physical activity, or an equivalent combination of both moderate and vigorous activities, each week.
- Do muscle strengthening activities on at least 2 days each week.
You need to get into the habit of exercising and once you do you’ll wonder why you waited so long. Exercise makes us feel good and is a great activity to enjoy with friends.
Step 3 – Mentally Challenge Your Brain
Keeping your brain active is important to keep it functioning well.
Scientists have found that challenging the brain with new activities helps to build new brain cells and strengthen connections between them. This helps to give the brain more ‘reserve’ or ‘back up’ so that it can cope better and keep working properly if any brain cells are damaged or die.
Mental exercise may also protect against accumulation of damaging proteins in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease.
As we grow older we tend to prefer doing the things we’ve always done, tasks that we are familiar with – and that’s understandable – but the brain benefits by having to tackle something it doesn’t know.
It could be learning a new language, taking up a new sport, doing a course in something you’re always wanted to do – anything really, as long as it’s learning something new. Challenge yourself often and keep learning new things throughout life.
Higher levels of mental activity throughout life are consistently associated with better brain function and reduced risk of cognitive decline and dementia.
Importantly for older or retired people, increased complex mental activity in later life is associated with a lower dementia risk, which is good news for those who are able to work beyond retirement age.
Step 4 – Follow A Healthy Diet
Your brain needs a range of nutrients to function properly. Evidence suggests that a healthy, balanced diet may help in maintaining brain health and functionality but more research is needed to understand if there are specific foods that may be able to reduce the risk of dementia.
Several studies have found that a high intake of saturated fats, such as those found in meat, deep fried foods and takeaway food and trans fats often found in pies, pastries, cakes, biscuits and buns are associated with an increased risk of dementia. So what you eat could affect your brain.
An eating plan that includes a higher intake of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats or ‘good fats’, such as those found in fish and olive oil, is associated with a reduced risk of dementia. Foods that are high in antioxidants such as tomatoes, pinto and kidney beans, pecan nuts, cranberries, blueberries and oranges also seem to be good for brain health.
The omega 3 fatty acids, such as those contained in oily fish and walnuts, may reduce inflammation in the brain and promote the growth of new brain cells. Some studies have shown an association between higher fish consumption and lower dementia risk.
Follow the National Dietary Guidelines by eating a variety of foods including vegetables, fruit, fish, grains, nuts, legumes (beans, peas and lentils), and lean meat. Reduce foods high in saturated fats including full fat dairy products, fried food and desserts.
What about alcohol?
Over time, drinking large quantities of alcohol may increase the risk of developing dementia. In fact, there is a type of dementia that may develop in anyone who regularly drinks excessive amounts of alcohol over a number of years.
Light to moderate alcohol consumption may be associated with a reduced risk of dementia. The benefits of moderate consumption include reducing inflammation, increasing good cholesterol and increasing brain blood flow, all of which have positive effects on brain health.
Step 5 – Enjoy Social Activity
Most of us are social beings and usually prefer the company of others rather than existing in isolation. It’s always much more fun doing things with other people, to share experiences like going to the movies or a concert, take off on a trip somewhere or discover a new restaurant.
To help look after your brain health it’s important to be social with people whose company you enjoy and in ways that interest you.
Social engagement has been found to have benefits for other health factors related to cognitive functioning, such as vascular condition and depression. It is mentally stimulating and may contribute to building brain reserve which then contributes to a lower dementia risk.
Research suggests that social activities that involve mental activity and physical activity such as dancing and team sports for example, provide even greater benefit for brain health and reducing the risk of dementia.
What Else Can You Do To Avoid Dementia?
Avoid Head Injury
A serious head injury, with loss of consciousness, is associated with a higher risk of developing dementia. This doesn’t mean that you will get dementia if you have suffered a serious head injury, but your risk is greater on average than someone who hasn’t suffered one.
It’s essential to always wear adequate head protection when doing certain activities such as riding a bicycle or motorcycle, rollerblading and playing certain sports such as football, soccer and boxing. And remember to play it safe when using ladders and avoid falls.
Depression may be also associated with a higher risk of developing dementia. Evidence is emerging about the physical effects that depression can have on the brain.
It is clearly vital to identify and treat depression. Preventing new episodes of depression may be useful to brain health. Effective treatment is available, so you should never hesitate to consult a health professional for advice.
Sourced from Your Brain Matters.