You might be surprised to learn how much your lifestyle figures into your future brain health.
While 30% of cognitive changes that happen as we age are due to genes, most of the decline – whether it’s age-related forgetfulness or dementia – can be chalked up to our dietary, sleep, exercise and social habits, says Ana Daugherty, PhD, a neuroscientist in the Institute of Gerontology at Wayne State University.
Daugherty, who runs the Healthy Brain Aging Lab at WSU, says preventing or slowing brain decline means reducing risk factors that are within our control.
Diet, for example, plays a huge role in the health of our arteries. Researchers know that a diet high in animal fat can lead to clogged arteries and other diseases of the circulatory system that are implicated in dementias.
Drinking alcohol has also been linked to a loss of gray matter. A 2017 study found that even mild drinking – seven to eight glasses of wine a week for men – makes you vulnerable to brain damage. Alcohol dependence may be responsible for 10%-24% of dementia cases in nursing facilities.
A sedentary lifestyle, sleeping less than 7 hours per night, and not having positive social relationships are also dangerous to your brain health.
What you eat will impact your intellectual abilities.
A recent study in JAMA Neurology found that people who regularly eat highly processed food – those with artificial color and flavors and preservatives — scored worse on tests for word recall and recognition and in verbal fluency. The study followed 10,000 adults 35 to 74 years old at four-year intervals for about nine years. Researchers found that the cognitive decline in people whose daily diet consisted of at least 20% of highly processed foods was more than 25% faster than that of the participants who ate a healthier diet.
Having diabetes, high blood pressure and metabolic syndrome, all related to heart health, also puts people at higher risk of brain decline.
The upshot? Opt for more whole grains, fish, fruit and veggies in your diet to maximize brain health. Diets that are considered both balanced and protective of your health are the Mediterranean and DASH (a plan with less sodium to help hypertension) diets.
“One of the most important things you can do is take care of the heart,” Daugherty says. Even teenagers who eat chicken nuggets for lunch every day run the risk of early cognitive decline, she says.
Portion control is important, too, Daugherty says. Eating a lot of cheese frequently, for example, contributes to higher levels of sodium, which can lead to high blood pressure.
Move. Every day. You’ll think better into your later years.
A 2022 study in the UK involving more than 78,000 adults between 40 and 79 years old found that walking just under 10,000 steps a day decreased the risk for dementia. Even taking half that number of steps each day was beneficial for the brain.
Any physical movement that raises your heart rate is good for your heart and hence, cognitive health. The goal should be 150 minutes of activity each week that raises your heart rate.
It may not be as easy to get uninterrupted sleep as you get older, but try to get at least 7 hours of shut-eye each night. It can protect against dementia and an early death.
A few studies have shown the link between short nights and brain decline. One of them, published in 2021, involved 2,800 participants who were 65 and older. After five years, research found that those who got five or fewer hours of sleep per night and those who did not sleep well had a higher incidence of dementia and early death. The study also found that the participants who felt refreshed during the day had a lower risk of developing dementias.
See your doctor if you are having trouble sleeping.
Puzzles are not the only activity that slows brain decline. Hobbies like knitting, learning a new language or skill, traveling and dancing engage the mind and are protective of brain health, Daugherty says.
Loneliness and social isolation are not good for the heart or brain. Connect with family and friends to boost your mood and cognitive skills.
You can’t do anything about your genes, but you can maintain a healthy lifestyle. Even at the age of 70, Daugherty says, you can take steps to defend against the onset of dementia.
Julie Edgar is a communications specialist with Area Agency on Aging 1-B, a nonprofit that serves older adults and family caregivers in Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair and Washtenaw counties. We provide services, programs and resources that are designed to help seniors age safely and independently. Call us at 800-852-7795 to get connected.
Opinions expressed in this blog belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or beliefs of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan or its subsidiaries and affiliates.