Monthly Research Topic – Brain health

We are pleased to recommence a series of monthly blogs, focused on a research topic or theme, and wish to thank PhD candidate Laura Garcia Diaz for writing the first one, and our Brain Health is so important, with or without a diagnosis of dementia!

Many of you will  know DAI hosts a twice monthly Brian health meeting, which is open for anyone to attend, so please contact us if you’d like to join to the mailing list for notifications about these meetings. DAI also hosts a Brain Health group on Facebook, and has a Brain Health Hub on our website.

Let’s talk about brain health 
By Laura Diaz Garcia © 2021

Your brain never sleeps. It is constantly helping you do the things that are important to you. Whether that is making a meal, going on a walk with a friend, or reading a blog about brain health, your brain is always working behind the scenes. The brain does a lot of work for us!

That is why it is so important to think about brain health.

There is strong evidence that people can reduce their risk of cognitive decline by making key lifestyle changes(Livingston et al., 2020):

Be physically active

Exercise increases blood flow to your brain, nourishing your brain cells with nutrients and oxygen. Regular exercise is also good for your heart and can help reduce stress and improve your mood. In a recent study, researchers found that high levels (over 150minutes per week) of physical activity in mid-life is associated with better brain health in later life (Palta et al., 2021). Physical activity can take many forms including walking, dancing, gardening, and playing with children.

Be socially active

There is good evidence that staying connected with your friends, family and other community members is good for your brain health. When we are socializing we are constantly using our brain to help us understand what others are saying, expressing ourselves, laughing, and staying engaged in conversations. In a recent study, researchers found that individuals who reported greater levels of social engagement had more gray matter in the brain (Felix et al., 2021). Gray matter supports memory, emotions and movement control. Social engagement can take many forms including volunteering, attending a religious service and going out for dinner with a friend.

Be cognitively active

Challenge your brain! When we follow a routine, we start doing things without thinking much about them. Just as exercising can help improve your cardiovascular health and body strength, challenging your brain can help engage new or rarely-used mental pathways. Researchers have found that adults 65 years and older who read, play games, speak a second language, or play music have better cognition than those who do not (Chan et al., 2018; Lee et al., 2018). Challenging your brain means trying out something new, such as learning a new language or using your non-dominant hand to write notes, and doing it regularly. To help you do something challenging regularly, try finding a challenging activity that you enjoy.

Follow a healthy diet

The food that we eat is the fuel that our body, including our brain, uses to help us do the things that are important to us. That is why it is important to eat a nutritious, balanced diet. A healthy diet can support our overall health, including our brain health. Although no specific diet has been found to be the best for the brain, the impact of the MIND and Mediterranean diets on brain health are being studied with promising results (Hosking et al., 2018; Petersson & Philippou, 2016). These diets recommend regular consumption of vegetables, berries, nuts, whole grains, olive oil and legumes. It is also recommended to limit process foods, sweets, dairy and meat.

Some of the things mentioned in this blog, such as staying physically active, may have been harder to do during the COVID-19 lockdowns. The COVID-19 lockdowns illustrate how sometimes engaging in brain healthy activities may not be possible because of our environment.

Although at the personal level there are a lot of things that we can do to support our brain health, it is important to advocate for safe public spaces for physical activity, affordable nutritious food, and community programs that encourage social interaction. Educating ourselves about brain health is an important first step. Advocating for policies and environments that support healthy choices is also important to ensure that all community members have access to services and programs that will encourage and support healthy choices.

There is no evidence that there is a single thing that you can do that will benefit your brain health the most. However, the research shows that taking small steps to protect our brain health can make a difference, so find several things that you enjoy and try to stick to them!

Reading blogs such as thisis one way to remain cognitively active. What else will you be doing today to for your brain health? Is there anything that you could do to support the brain health of your friends and family?

Let’s keep the conversation going!

Laura

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References

Chan, D., Shafto, M., Kievit, R., Matthews, F., Spink, M., Valenzuela, M., & Henson, R. N. (2018). Lifestyle activities in mid-life contribute to cognitive reserve in late-life, independent of education, occupation, and late-life activities. Neurobiology of Aging, 70, 180–183. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.NEUROBIOLAGING.2018.06.012

Felix, C., Rosano, C., Zhu, X., Flatt, J. D., & Rosso, A. L. (2021). Greater Social Engagement and Greater Gray Matter Microstructural Integrity in Brain Regions Relevant to Dementia. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 76(6), 1027–1035. https://doi.org/10.1093/GERONB/GBAA173

Hosking, D. E., Eramudugolla, R., Cherbuin, N., & Anstey, K. J. (2018). MIND not Mediterranean diet related to 12-year incidence of cognitive impairment in an Australian longitudinal cohort study. Alzheimer’s & Dementia. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jalz.2018.12.011

Lee, A. T. C., Richards, M., Chan, W. C., Chiu, H. F. K., Lee, R. S. Y., & Lam, L. C. W. (2018). Association of Daily Intellectual Activities With Lower Risk of Incident Dementia Among Older Chinese Adults. JAMA Psychiatry, 75(7), 697. https://doi.org/10.1001/JAMAPSYCHIATRY.2018.0657

Livingston, G., Huntley, J., Sommerlad, A., Ames, D., Ballard, C., Banerjee, S., Brayne, C., Burns, A., Cohen-Mansfield, J., Cooper, C., Costafreda, S. G., Dias, A., Fox, N., Gitlin, L. N., Howard, R., Kales, H. C., Kivimäki, M., Larson, E. B., Ogunniyi, A., … Mukadam, N. (2020). Dementia prevention, intervention, and care: 2020 report of the Lancet Commission. In The Lancet (Vol. 396, Issue 10248, pp. 413–446). Lancet Publishing Group. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30367-6

Palta, P., Sharrett, A. R., Gabriel, K. P., Gottesman, R. F., Folsom, A. R., Power, M. C., Evenson, K. R., Jack, C. R., Knopman, D. S., Mosley, T. H., & Heiss, G. (2021). Prospective Analysis of Leisure-Time Physical Activity in Midlife and Beyond and Brain Damage on MRI in Older Adults. Neurology, 96(7), e964–e974. https://doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0000000000011375

Petersson, S. D., & Philippou, E. (2016). Mediterranean Diet, Cognitive Function, and Dementia: A Systematic Review of the Evidence. Advances in Nutrition, 7(5), 889–904. https://doi.org/10.3945/AN.116.012138