- New research links some healthy habits to a sharper brain as you age.
- The study followed the participants for more than two decades.
- Doctors say these are good habits to follow for your brain and overall health.
There is a general recipe for living well that includes regular physical activity, eating a healthy diet and avoiding smoking. Now, new research reveals five factors that may also help support brain health and sharp thinking as you age.
The study, which was published in JAMA Neurology, looked at the autopsies of 586 people who lived to an average age of 91. These study participants took part in the Rush Memory and Aging Project before their deaths, which involved them undergoing regular mental and physical tests, along with annual lifestyle questionnaires for more. than 20 years.
The researchers found a direct link between healthy lifestyle habits and a lower risk of cognitive decline as the participants got older—this was true, even in people who had the telltale signs of developing Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Lead study author Klodian Dhana, MD, Ph.D., an assistant professor of geriatrics and palliative medicine at the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging, says his team wanted to see if certain factors might influence whether someone develops Alzheimer’s or dementia. . “As individuals age, there is a progressive accumulation of dementia-related brain pathologies,” he says. However, not everyone goes on to develop dementia despite these brain changes. The purpose of the study, says Dr. The idea was to see if lifestyle factors would make a difference in how likely someone is to develop dementia.
Here’s what Dr. Dhana and his team discovered.
Factors to improve brain health
Study participants were labeled as having a low-risk or healthy lifestyle if they did the following:
- No smoking.
- Doing moderate to vigorous exercise for at least 150 minutes a week.
- Limit alcohol use to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
- Engage in brain-stimulating activities such as reading, playing games, and visiting museums.
- Follow a variation of the MIND diet.
Study participants scored a healthy lifestyle within these areas, and the healthier they were, the better their brain health. The researchers found that for every one-point increase in the healthy lifestyle score, the lower the amount of beta-amyloid plaques (the hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease) and the higher their score on the cognitive tests they looked at factors such as memory and attention span.
An editorial that was published alongside the study noted that the benefits of following these healthy lifestyle factors were still there regardless of whether the study participants had signs of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in their brains.
Why are these habits good for the brain?
At first, these factors and lifestyle habits are known to be good for you. “Following a healthy lifestyle is good for the brain,” says Amit Sachdev, MD, MS, medical director in the Department of Neurology at Michigan State University.
These factors in particular “have been investigated and shown to be associated with slower cognitive decline and a lower risk of dementia,” says Dr. Dhana.
While plant-based diets have been linked to healthier brains, the MIND diet is a specific type of plant-based diet. It includes several elements of the Mediterranean diet, such as lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, olive oil, and whole grains, explains Jessica Cording, MS, RD, author of The Little Book of Game Changers: 50 Healthy Habits for Managing Stress and Anxiety.
“Previous studies on similar dietary patterns have shown that this style of eating is very rich in polyphenols, which are powerful plant compounds that have been shown to have neuroprotective properties,” says Cording. “That’s a big piece of the puzzle.” The foods included in this diet can help reduce body inflammation and promote good gut and heart health, she points out.
This diet, along with regular exercise, limiting alcohol use and avoiding smoking, is good for the cardiovascular system, Cording says. “What’s good for the heart and blood vessels is generally good for the brain—we have thousands of blood vessels in the brain,” she says.
Clifford Segil, DO, a neurologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA., agrees. “A healthy lifestyle enhances heart and brain health,” he says. “A healthy heart can only help your brain.”
Research has also found that engaging in mentally stimulating activities is associated with a lower risk of developing dementia. “The thing I most often recommend to patients for their brain health is structured cognitive exercise,” says Dr. Segil. “That could mean taking a class at a new college. With muscles, if you don’t use them, you lose them. The same goes for your brain.”
Dr. Segil emphasizes the importance of healthy lifestyle habits for brain health, noting that he sees patients do better after making lifestyle changes than taking certain medications to reduce the risk of cognitive decline.
In general, Dr. Dhana says the lifestyle factors presented in his study may help provide cognitive benefits over time. But if you’re concerned about your dementia risk or have a family history of the disease, he recommends seeing a doctor for personalized recommendations.
Korin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, sexual and relationship health, and lifestyle trends, with work appearing in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Self, Glamor and more. She has a master’s degree from American University, lives by the beach, and hopes to own a pork teacup and taco truck one day.