Then discover why research suggests that a combination of good nutrition with social, mental and physical activity may be more beneficial in improving or maintaining our brain function – memory, cognition and slowing down brain ageing. We will also touch on which herbs and supplements may boost that grey matter.
There are lifestyle habits that you can adopt to maintain or potentially improve your health as you age. These habits, spanning four categories — physical health and exercise, diet and nutrition, cognitive activity, and social engagement — can help keep your body and brain healthy and potentially reduce your risk of cognitive decline.
Research has suggested that combining good nutrition with mental, social and physical activities may have a greater benefit in maintaining or improving brain health than any single activity. At the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference® 2014, a two-year clinical trial of older adults at risk for cognitive impairment showed that a combination of physical activity, nutritional guidance, cognitive training, social activities and management of heart health risk factors slowed cognitive decline.
Embrace lifestyle habits that improve your overall health, such as exercising, consuming a nutritious diet, and staying cognitively and socially active — science suggests these may support brain health as well. It’s never too late to make changes to achieve a healthier lifestyle — or too early to start.
Physical activity is a valuable part of any overall body wellness plan and is associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline. If it’s safe for you, engage in cardiovascular exercise to elevate your heart rate. This will increase the blood flow to your brain and body, providing additional nourishment while reducing potential dementia risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol.
Consider physical activities that may also be mentally or socially engaging, such as walking with a friend, taking a dance class, joining an exercise group or golfing. Incorporating activities and healthy exercise habits at a young age will allow you to enjoy the lifelong benefits of regular physical activity. However, it’s never too late to start — making healthy choices at any age is beneficial to your well-being. Always consult your doctor before starting any new exercise program.
Adopt a healthy diet
Eating a heart-healthy diet benefits both your body and your brain. In general, this is a diet that is lower in fat and higher in vegetables and fruit. Research in the area of the relationship between diet and cognitive functioning is somewhat limited, but it does point to the benefits of two diets in particular: TheDASH diet and the Mediterranean diet . These diets may be able to reduce risk of dementia.
There are many brain booster foods to consider from antioxidants such as blueberries and tomatoes, oily fish, nuts, pumpkin seeds, whole grains and more...
Otago University studies... Eat better, think better -
Breads made with beetroot, hazelnuts or low salt are part of a study currently underway at the University of Otago to see if a better diet is good for our brain. The study involves 200 people, both young and old, who are randomly assigned to eat four to six slices of either a control bread or one of the three supplemented breads daily. Participants have their cognitive function tested before, during and after 12 weeks of eating the bread.
The researchers anticipate that the extra nutrients and the lower salt will benefit blood supply to the brain. The hazelnuts are a good source of unsaturated fats, while the beetroot is high in nitrates and is good for endothelial function.
Previous international research has shown health benefits from eating beetroot juice and nuts, and the novel aspect of this research is including them in a commonly eaten, economical food item. The study is also testing the palatability of the various breads.
“We’re trying to make an alteration in something that’s already a habit, rather than trying to form a new habit,” says psychologist Liana Machado.
“We don’t know yet if we’ll see improvements in cognitive function,” says Liana, “but reducing your salt intake should also lower your risk factor for having a stroke. So even if we don’t see better cognitive function there’ll be huge benefits from reducing salt intake.”
The current dietary intervention is a collaboration between Liana Machado in the Psychology Department, and Katherine Black from the Nutrition Department.
Previous research by Liana and her students has found a correlation between levels of exercise and the ability to perform well at a cognitive level. People who exercised more regularly had improved oxygenation of their blood, and better regulation of their blood flow. The surprising aspect of this work was that the benefit occurred in young people, as well as older people.
Staying Mentally Active
Mentally challenging activities, such as learning a new skill, adopting a new hobby or engaging in formal education, may have short and long-term benefits for your brain. To keep your mind active, it is important to participate in activities that expose your mind to new topics.
Challenge yourself to games with strategy or high-level reading material, or determine how to approach a familiar task in a more effective way. Selecting activities you enjoy will increase the likelihood that you will continue to engage in them over time.
Another way to stay mentally active is to get as much formal education as you can, at any point in life. Formal education is classroom-based learning administered by professionally trained teachers. Engaging in this type of education will help keep your brain healthy and may protect your brain from developing dementia. This could involve taking a class at a local college or community centre that teaches a new topic, skill or hobby (e.g. learning a language or how to play an instrument).
Staying Socially Active
Social engagement is associated with reduced rates of disability and mortality, and may also reduce risk for depression. Remaining socially active may support brain health and possibly delay the onset of dementia. There are many ways to stay socially active in your community, and these activities will provide the greatest connection to others.
Participation in clubs, volunteer efforts and other community pursuits may be valuable in maintaining your overall health. Many of these social activities are low-cost or free, such as joining a walking group or book club in your neighbourhood. Staying socially active can also be as simple as engaging with friends and family on a regular basis.
Pursue social activities that are meaningful to you. For instance, if you love animals, consider volunteering at a local shelter or with a rescue group. Learn more about how the brain works and how Alzheimer’s affects it with this interactive Brain Tour.
What about herbs and supplements?
Herbs for Thought
A lot of recent research has focused on gingko biloba, the leaf of the ginkgo tree, which is native to China and one of the oldest plants on the planet.
Ginkgo is particularly interesting to researchers because of its potential to treat Alzheimer’s disease and age-related mental decline. Several studies have shown that it does help these conditions, and it's routinely prescribed in places like Germany and France.
It's believed that ginkgo works by thinning the blood and hence improving oxygen flow to the brain. The brain needs a lot of oxygen, so it's possible that even a slight lack of circulation can affect its performance.
As a brain booster for people with normal mental abilities, it remains controversial.
For example, a study published in the journal Psychopharmacology in 2000 found that ginkgo improved attention. A 2001 study in the journal Human Psychopharmacology suggested that it improves memory. Nevertheless, in a review of studies on ginkgo in healthy people, researchers found no good evidence that it improved mental abilities, according to a 2002 report in Psychopharmacology Bulletin.
You should not take ginkgo biloba with any nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) such as aspirin or ibuprofen because they also thin the blood. Combining the two may cause excessive bleeding. The same goes for blood thinners such as warfarin.
Beyond herbs, a number of nutrients may work as brain boosters.
An omega-3 fatty acid found in fish oils, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is thought to be important to an infant's developing brain. DHA may also work as a brain booster by helping brain cells communicate. The lining of our brain cells is very highly concentrated with fatty acids, particularly DHA.
One 1999 review of studies on DHA, published in the journal of Pharmacological Research, found that the nutrient is essential to normal brain function, and that a diet rich in DHA improves learning, while a lack of DHA causes learning ability to suffer.
Acetyl-L-carnitine may work as a brain booster by helping maintain brain cells. Not much is known about its effects in healthy people, but one study found that people with early Alzheimer’s and mild memory impairment benefited from taking it. It may improve mental focus and alertness.
Other supplements and herbs we may use for cognitive enhancement range from Brahmi, iron, Korean ginseng, guarana, lavender, rosemary, St Johns Wort and more, depending on the cause and symptoms of brain health issues.
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