Do you ever think about your brain health? Do you know what “brain health” actually means? Many of us wonder how we can age gracefully…and what part our brain plays in our overall health as we get older. One of, if not the most complex part of the human body, this three-pound organ controls everything from your breathing to storing new information.
It’s a common belief that as we get older our brain becomes less efficient. For most of us, the idea of cognitive decline or the possibility of developing something like Alzheimer’s disease can create fear and angst. Unfortunately, many of us have seen a relative or friend with cognitive decline and know first-hand how devastating it can be.
For women, the numbers hit too close to home. Studies show that almost two-thirds of the more than six million American’s aged 65 and older living with the effects of this progressive brain disorder are women. Some working theories surrounding women and the increased incidence of Alzheimer’s are linked to longevity, autoimmunity, and hormonal factors, specifically the decline in estrogen. In fact, it is estimated that women in their 60s are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as they are breast cancer.
We are living longer than past generations, so taking care of your body and brain are important for continued health. Studies show that there are things we can do now to help our brain remain healthy as we age:
Quality Sleep. The brain does not shut-off when you sleep. Sleep is when your body slows down to repair itself, but your brain is still consolidating memories and information from the day. While you sleep, your brain clears out toxins and plaques that can lead to dementia. Inconsistent or fragmented sleep reduces the amount of “clean up” for your brain and may increase you risk for cognitive impairment. Aim for 7 - 9 hours of quality sleep each night.
Move Your Body. Regular exercise has been shown to benefit the body and the brain. Exercise increases blood flow, which helps keep your vascular system healthy. Research shows that people who are physically active are less likely to experience cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. Aim to exercise several days a week for 30 – 60 minutes.
Eat Well. Focus on a whole-foods diet with plenty of protein, healthy fats, whole grains, fruits, and veggies. Incorporate things like lean meats, fatty fish (like salmon), olives, eggs, berries, as well as nuts and seeds into your diet. Eliminate processed foods, which tend to be filled with preservatives, sugar, and inflammatory oils.
Exercise Your Brian. Your brain is like a muscle – use it or lose it! There are many ways to “exercise” your brain to keep it active like reading, crossword puzzles, Sudoku, learning a new language or instrument, or playing cards with friends.
Stay Social. Studies show that social interaction helps prevent isolation and depression, which can contribute to memory loss and brain atrophy. Look for opportunities to connect with loved ones and friends.
Be Mindful. No one functions well under stress. Meditation, deep breathing, or a walk outside help to calm the mind and can increase your ability to learn new information and increase cognitive efficiency and function.
Limit Alcohol. Studies show that alcohol can affect the communication pathways in the brain. It can also cause fragmented sleep, which is why you may wake up not feeling refreshed. If you’re going to sip a cocktail or enjoy a glass of wine, do so in moderation.
More research is still needed to understand why women are more prone to cognitive impairment and conditions such as dementia. I think though most of us can agree that we want to live a long and healthy life, which includes both physical and cognitive health. Brain health is about keeping the mind sharp and being mindful of what we can do now to help prevent cognitive decline. Applying these diet and lifestyle changes are a great start.
Meghan Punda, CRNP, is a nurse practitioner and functional nutritionist with a focus on women’s health. With a passion for identifying and treating the root cause of health issues, Meghan works one-on-one with her clients to develop personalized dietary and wellness plans to fit each patient’s lifestyle and ultimately reach their full wellness potential.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease? National Institute on Aging, nia.nih.gov. July 08, 2021.
Improve Brain Health with the MIND Diet, MayoClinic.org. July 31, 2019.
11 Best Foods to Boost Your Brain and Memory, by Kerri-Ann Jennings MS, RD, medically reviewed by Kathy W. Warwick R.D., CDE. June 21, 2021.