More and more when experts talk about eating right, sleeping enough, and staying physically fit, they will mention how these things are good for “brain health.” That sounds appealing, but what is it and how does anyone know when they have it?
The answer is like a puzzle (which is also good for brain health): it changes. That is, the health of one’s brain is changing throughout life.
“We wouldn’t expect a two-year old, a 12-year old, a 20-year old and a 92-year old to have the same heart health or the same brain health,” said Heather M. Snyder, PhD, Director of Medical and Scientific Operations at the Alzheimer’s Association. “Overall, what brain health means is that for your age your brain is working at it’s maximum efficiency.”
In other words, aging determines brain health. Age is not the only determinate of good brain health though, and there are things individuals can do to improve their brain health.
Eat, Play, Move
The reason nutrition plays a role in optimum brain health is because eating well can benefit the heart and other parts of the body that keep blood flowing to the brain. “If the heart is not healthy and not working at maximum efficiency and the brain needs blood, then it impacts brain health,” explained Dr. Snyder. “When we think about things that make you more at risk for Alzheimer’s--cardiovascular disease, diabetes—we see a link between healthy choices and a healthy brain.”
The Alzheimer’s Association offers recommendations for a “brain-healthy diet” on their website.
Another way to keep the blood flowing to your brain is through exercise. Again, the first step is to reduce the risk of strokes, heart attacks and diabetes, which in turn minimizes the chances of developing Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Regular physical exercise—shown to reduce brain cell loss in the elder population, according the Alzheimer’s Association—can be as simple as walking, gardening, or bicycling, as long as 30 minutes of aerobic activity is achieved to get the heart rate up and the blood pumping.
If those exercises can be done with friends, check one more way to improve or maintain brain health off the list. Social activity has been shown to reduce stress levels and maintain healthy brain cells and function.
“One study reported that leisure activities that combine physical, mental and social activity are the most likely to prevent dementia,” states the Alzheimer’s Association. “In the study of 800 men and women aged 75 and older, those who were more physically active, more mentally active or more socially engaged had a lower risk for developing dementia. And those who combined these activities did even better.”
Are We There Yet?
Dr. Snyder cautions that not everyone has the same brain health, even if they are the same age. “Just as there is a range in blood pressure in a heartbeat, with brain health, we don’t all think the same,” she said. “We won’t all have the same experiences.”
In her own life, Dr. Snyder uses the example of balancing the checkbook, a habit she has done weekly for decades. Her husband, however, has never balanced the checkbook. “To judge brain health, you have to judge a change in something you’ve done your whole life,” she said. “If I could not balance the checkbook, that would be a change for me. If my husband could not balance the checkbook, that wouldn’t be a change in brain health.”
While it is encouraged to always be learning—in addition to eating well, remaining socially engaged and exercising--to stimulate brain cells and maintain that good brain health, just because one doesn’t pick up tango dancing at age 87 or learn how to balance the checkbook at age 36 does not mean they have poor brain health.
“Take on life to the fullest,” said Dr. Snyder. “If you notice a change in brain health, have a conversation with your health provider.”