We all know the importance of looking after our body, keeping it in top condition with a healthy diet and exercise routine. We’re increasingly aware that our gut health can impact so many aspects of our lives beyond digestion, including our mood. But when did you last consider your brain health? Research shows it’s possible to age-proof your brain, lowering your risk of the two biggest causes of death in women, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, in part by maintaining a healthy mind, according to research organization the Brain Health Network.
Dementia is no longer deemed an inevitable consequence of aging. In fact, a staggering 40% of cases could be delayed by tackling a range of risk factors. Red flags include high cholesterol and a lack of exercise, but everything from socializing and keeping active—physically and mentally—to looking after your heart health can make a big difference.
Dementia affects more women than men—in fact, women outnumber men 2:1 worldwide, reports the Alzheimer’s Society. Whatever your age, it’s never too early to switch to brain-healthy foods and optimize your lifestyle and sleep habits. We’re now wising up to the fact that looking after our brain is an investment in our future.
So where do you start? Follow our brain health tips to reduce your risk of developing dementia, boost your brainpower and stay razor-sharp.
What diet is good for brain health?
Yes, what we eat really does affect how we think, how our memory works and how likely we are to get Alzheimer’s and dementia. Two diets score well for brain health: The Mediterranean diet and the MIND diet.
The Mediterranean diet shows positive effects on brain health, especially for dementia. This type of diet shows that foods that are good for the heart tend to be good for the brain, given the connection between inflammation and both diseases.
The Mediterranean diet is based on:
● High intake of fruit, vegetables, legumes and cereal
● Moderate intake of fish (include oily fish)
● Low to moderate intake of dairy foods
● Low intake of meat and poultry
● A high ratio of monounsaturated fats (nuts, seeds, avocados and olive oil) to saturated fats (found in animal products such as meat and dairy and also coconut oil)
Following the Mediterranean diet is associated with improved cognition in older age and a lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Another study looked at brain size (volume) among a large cohort of Scottish people who were dementia-free. It found that those who didn’t adhere closely to the Med diet were more likely to have a higher loss of total brain volume.
The MIND diet (standing for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) was created by researchers at Rush University in Chicago to help prevent dementia and slow age-related loss of brain function. It blends two diets that reduce the risk of heart and circulatory disease: the Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which can help control blood pressure, another risk factor for dementia.
The MIND diet for brain health lists 10 foods associated with improved cognitive function—whole grains, green leafy veggies, beans, lentils, blueberries, etc., and several inflammation-causing foods to limit, such as fried and fast food, cheese, pastries, sweets, butter, etc.
Enjoy some social scenes
Your social life, how often you stimulate your mind and even the quantity and quality of your rest, all play a part in your brain health too. Having close bonds with friends and family, and joining in meaningful social activities can help maintain your thinking skills in later life.
We are social creatures, so craving connections with others is essentially hard-wired into your brain. In fact, this need is so fundamental that the brain perceives a threat to social connections similarly to physical sensations—loneliness can feel like pain and it produces inflammation in the body, particularly during times of stress.
A daily dose of social interaction is key for optimum brain health, but even brief connections can help. “Micro-interactions, for example, a quick chat with a stranger in a queue have been curtailed by the pandemic, but are vital for a sense of connectedness.”
Make sleep a priority
Rest is a pillar of our well-being that we often neglect, but sleep is crucial for our brain health. When we sleep, our brain remains highly active. It’s when memory consolidation takes place, where your brain files everything you’ve learned.
While sleeping, we cleanse toxins from the brain, and the communication between the cells improves. Good sleep not only boosts your mental well-being, cognitive function, mood and memory, but can even decrease the risk of serious conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, stroke and kidney disease.
The optimum night’s sleep is 7-8 hours, but often it’s quality, not quantity, that counts. Getting plenty of poor quality sleep will not provide the same benefits for the brain as good quality sleep. The sleep cycle includes several stages and your brain functions differently at each point.
The sleep cycle stages
Each stage varies in length. Stage one may last 1-5 minutes, then stage two kicks in, lasting anywhere from 10-60 minutes. The third and fourth stages of sleep are the deepest, when muscle and tissue repair take place, cells regenerate and your immune system is strengthened. The vital fifth stage, known as REM sleep, is when dreaming plays a role in memory consolidation. Then, the entire cycle repeats itself.
For better brain health, it’s vital your body goes through all stages of sleep, so you need to practice what’s known as good sleep hygiene. Establishing a proper wind-down routine before bed, so you sleep deeply through the night. “Keep technology out of the bedroom and keep the temperature in your bedroom cool (ideally 18°C ).” Bear in mind that booking in some self-care is important too. “Rest is often said to be the poor relative of sleep, but it shouldn’t be. It’s crucial we create some rest time every day.”
If, like many of us, you’re addicted to the online game Wordle, or a regular with playing sudoku, you’re giving your brain an age-proofing workout–bonus! Our brains have the ability to evolve until the day we die, a process known as ‘neuroplasticity’.
Learning is good for your health, as it exercises your mind. When you learn something new, your brain forms new connections. Repeating a new skill, such as practicing a musical instrument, will help the technique become embedded over time.
Without physical exercise, your muscles will weaken, and your brain is the same. This mental muscle strengthening improves concentration and memory, and higher-order cognitive functions such as decision-making and problem-solving. Keeping your brain firing on all cylinders has also been shown to help us as we age. Studies show that continued learning over our lifespans lowers our chance of developing dementia.
Being active increases your heart rate, which pumps more oxygen to the brain. It also helps the release of hormones, which provide an ideal environment for the growth of brain cells. Exercise promotes neuroplasticity too by stimulating the growth of new connections between cells in many vital areas of the brain located in the cerebral cortex.
Regular exercise can also help remodel your brain’s “reward system,” leading to higher levels of dopamine (the “reward” neurotransmitter) and more dopamine receptors. In this way, exercise can not only alleviate low mood, but also boost your capacity for joy!
Which exercise is best for brain health? Go for aerobic exercises, such as running, swimming, HIIT, cycling and walking. These are considered best for brain health because they increase your heart rate, which means the body pumps more blood to your head. But strength training and lifting weights also bring benefits by increasing heart rate. They promote cardiovascular health, improve blood flow to the brain, reduce inflammation and lower levels of stress hormone (cortisol).