Brain Health

How the brain ages – and why some people’s brains hold up better than others – is a complex puzzle involving an interplay of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors. Scientists have spent decades tracking people’s activities and habits as they age to determine what distinguishes people who retain good mental faculties from those who fare less well. Many of these studies are on-going, so we can expect new clues to be revealed as researchers learn more.

“Successful ageing” studies consistently point to a few fundamental qualities of a brain healthy lifestyle. The overall message is to stay active, mentally, physically and socially.

A checklist for a brain-healthy lifestyle:

Do Don’t
Exercise your body regularly and get involved in physically active leisure pursuits Drink to excess, smoke or use illicit drugs
Keep your mind exercised! Engage in active learning throughout life and pursue new experiences Ignore sudden changes in mental status, but don’t be overly concerned about normal slips of memory like forgetting names or where you put the keys
Stay socially engaged with friends, family and community groups Put off going to the doctor if you notice changes in your health, physically or mentally
Maintain a positive attitude and a sense of control over your life Overlook the possibility of drug interactions that can affect mental functioning, especially if you are taking more than one prescription medication
Take steps to manage stress Become isolated in your home
Eat a brain-healthy, balanced diet rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids and consider taking a multivitamin supplement that includes antioxidants and folate Think you’re too old to take up something new!
Mind your numbers: lose any extra kilo’s, lower your cholesterol if it is high, and keep your blood glucose and blood pressure under control  
Get adequate sleep  
Get proper medical attention and treatment for any underlying health problems.  

Lifestyle and diet

There is now overwhelming evidence that the same lifestyle and dietary factors that contribute to heart disease also increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and age-related cognitive decline. Therefore “managing your numbers” – cholesterol levels, blood pressure, blood sugar, and weight – has become a rallying cry for brain-health advocates.

“Many factors that are good for your heart turn out to be good for your brain as well,” says Sam Gandy, a scientific advisor to the Alzheimer’s Association in the US. “There are multiple reasons why you should pay attention to these central medical problems  you might have and get control of them.”

Pillars of successful ageing

“Successful ageing” studies consistently point to a few fundamental qualities of a brain-healthy lifestyle. The overall message is to stay active, mentally, physically and socially.

Already, certain qualities seem to stand out as consistent characteristics of people who age successfully in terms of brain health and maintaining cognitive function. In their book “Keep Your Brain Young” Marilyn Albert, PhD, and Guy McKhann, MD, neuroscientists at John Hopkins University, talk about three fundamental tenets of successful ageing:

  • Staying mentally active
  • Staying physically active
  • Maintaining “self-efficacy”

Staying mentally active doesn’t mean we have to master 5-star Sudoku every day, but it does mean turning off the television, a notoriously passive activity. The key is to actively engage the brain in novel ways. This could mean breaking out of old routines and learning something new, or simply doing something old in a new way. Activities that stimulate and challenge us intellectually seem to be best.

In the same way, staying physically active doesn’t mean we have to pump iron like a bodybuilder or run a marathon! Simply walking or engaging in active hobbies such as gardening, can help you meet a daily “exercise quota”. A minimum of 30 minutes a day most days of the week is a good starting goal, but it doesn’t have to be done all at once. The important thing is to do something active on a regular basis, to make it a part of your day-to-day life.

Self-efficacy, Albert and McKhann say, entails an ability to adapt to life’s challenges and to maintain a degree of independence in and control over one’s life. Sustaining social ties with friends and family seems to be crucial – the more people get out of their house and engage in social activities, the better they seem to do, experts say. Managing stress and keeping a positive outlook on life is also important.

The bottom line is that the things we do every day can and do make a difference in how well our memory and learning abilities hold up as we age. Simple challenges can make a big impact, and the more changes we make, the bigger the impact is likely to be.

The material on this page “Brain Health" has been used with the kind permission from the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives.