Brain health – how to keep your brain active and healthy as you age
Age-related mental decline is becoming increasingly common, and it’s one of the most feared consequences of aging. Thankfully, cognitive impairment is not an inevitable part of the ageing process.
Here are my top research-based tips you can use to help maintain optimal brain function well into old age:
“Brainy” activities, such as reading, learning a language, taking courses, and mental gymnastics exercises including word puzzles or maths problems, all promote the development of new connections between nerve cells and may also foster ‘neurogenesis’ – the production of new brain cells. The extraordinary ability of our brain to grow and reshape itself is known as ‘neuroplasticity’ and this helps us to build a functional reserve that can future proof our brains against potential age-related cell loss. Aside from brain training exercises, also experiment with activities that require manual dexterity as well as mental effort, such as drawing, painting, learning a musical instrument and crafts.
Get physical exercise
Optimal brain health requires physical fitness! Using your muscles benefits your mind. Regular exercise increases the number of tiny blood vessels that bring highly oxygenated blood to the region of the brain that is related to thought. Exercise also increases the connections between brain cells (synapses). This results in our brains being more efficient and ‘plastic’ (meaning adaptable – with the ability to grow), and this translates into better performance as we age.
Exercise also reduces blood pressure, improves cholesterol levels, supports healthy blood sugar balance and improves our ability to deal with mental stress, all of which can help your brain as well as your cardiovascular system.
Improve your diet
Good nutrition helps your mind and your body. The world’s largest studies on the effects of nutrition as it relates to healthy ageing show that people who eat a whole food, plant-based diet that emphasises fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, pulses and plant sources of proteins are less likely to develop cognitive impairment and dementia.
Optimise blood pressure
The research shows that hypertension in midlife elevates the threat of cognitive decline in old age. Healthy lifestyle modifications are key when it comes to keeping your pressure at healthy levels. Stay lean, exercise regularly, limit your alcohol to (ideally) none at all – or a maximum of two drinks a day, manage your response to stress, and eat healthily.
Improve your blood sugar
Poorly controlled diabetes, of all kinds, is a risk factor for dementia. You can help prevent Type 2 diabetes by eating well, exercising regularly, and staying lean. All these strategies help to improve blood glucose levels in those with the autoimmune condition, Type 1 diabetes too – and will also benefit those with gestational diabetes and other variations of the condition, including the now increasingly common Type 1½.
Improve your cholesterol
High levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol may be associated with an increased risk of dementia. Following a whole food, plant-based SOS-Free diet, (free of added refined Salt Oil and Sugar), appropriate exercise (walking, weights and mindful exercise such as yoga, tai chi, qi gong and Pilates), all help toward improving your cholesterol levels.
Build your mental, physical and emotional resilience
Resilience is crucial for all of us, and people who manage their response to stress poorly, who are anxious, depressed, sleep-deprived, or exhausted tend to score poorly on cognitive function tests. Resilience and healthy lifestyle habits are related to better cognitive health and are protective against dementia.
Build social networks
Strong social ties have been associated with a lower risk of dementia, as well as lower blood pressure and up to nine years longer life expectancy – with an increased health-span too – meaning that we remain healthy into old age.