Health and Fitness

Keeping Your Mind Healthy through Positive Lifestyle Changes

Although certain changes within the brain are inevitable with ageing, mental decline doesn’t have to be. Providing your mind with regular stimulation by doing crosswords, puzzles, drawings or craftwork can help to generate new connections between nerve cells within the brain. However, paying attention to our lifestyle choices as we get older can also ensure that our brains remain in good shape into our senior years. Here we consider some of the best things you can do in relation to your diet, activity and habits, to keep dementia at bay.
Remain a healthy weight
You are probably aware that being overweight increases your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, but did you know that it also makes you more susceptible to cognitive decline? A number of scientific studies have found that those people with a higher body mass index are at increased risk of developing dementia [8]. This might be related to the fact that carrying excess body weight tends to raise your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugars, all of which are risk factors for deterioration in mental function. Following a balanced diet, paying attention to your portion sizes and keeping active in your daily life can prevent the extra pounds creeping up on you.
Eat a diet rich in plant foods
Around two-thirds of our diet should be provided by foods from plant sources, as fruit, vegetables, pulses, wholegrains and nuts are rich in a range of nutrients that not only benefit our physical health, but can also protect against mental decline.
* Fruit and vegetables are rich in antioxidants. These nutrients, which include beta-carotene, vitamin C and E, help to protect our cells including those in the brain from damage that can contribute to dementia risk. Choose a variety of brightly colored fruits and vegetables every day to ensure you obtain a range of antioxidants, as it is generally these that are responsible for their pigment. These foods are also rich in potassium, which has been shown in a number of studies to lower blood pressure. Remember they don’t have to be fresh, so frozen or canned fruit and vegetables – avoiding those in syrup or brine – are a convenient alternative.
* Peas, beans and lentils contain soluble fibre, which can lower the harmful LDL cholesterol that would otherwise bind to the artery walls, making them narrower. A reduced supply of blood to the brain can impact on the supply of nutrients to its cells, impairing their function, so maintaining good blood flow is vital. Consider replacing some of the meat in soups and stews with pulses.
* Wholegrains are rich in folate, one of the B vitamins, which helps to protect against mental decline [9] by lowering levels of a substance called homocysteine; people with dementia frequently have raised levels of this. Many breakfast cereals have extra folate added, along with vitamin B6 and B12, which act in a similar way to folate.
* Consider eating a Brazil nut each day, as just one will meet your body’s needs for selenium. This mineral forms part of powerful antioxidant enzymes and is linked to a reduced risk of dementia.
* Diets that contain a greater proportion of plant foods also tend to be lower in saturated fat, which is the type of fat that raises LDL cholesterol.
Include oily fish each week
Although omega-3 fatty acids have long been known to protect against heart disease, evidence now points to their role in preserving brain function [10]. They may be helpful in this respect because all cells in the body contain omega-3 fatty acids in their membranes, which serve to protect their contents. Oily fish such as sardines, mackerel and trout are the richest sources of these essential fatty acids and ideally should be included in the diet every week. If you dislike fish or prefer not to eat it, plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids include green leafy vegetables and canola, walnut and flaxseed oil. However, as this form of omega-3 is more difficult for the body to process, you might benefit from taking a supplement containing those derived from algae, which are similar to those obtained from oily fish.
Keep active
Taking regular exercise can reduce your risk of dementia through a number of mechanisms. Research suggests that being active on a regular basis stimulates the development of new brain cells and also increases blood flow in the brain. It can additionally lower blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Aim for at least the recommended 150 minutes of aerobic activity each week. It is entirely up to you the type of activity you take. Some people enjoy taking part in sport, attending an exercise class, swimming or cycling, whereas others prefer to go for a walk or keep themselves active around the house and garden.
Drink in moderation
If you choose to drink alcohol, do so in moderation, as a small amount of alcohol has been shown by research to protect against dementia [11]. Alcohol helps to raise beneficial HDL cholesterol and is a source of antioxidants, which may explain these findings. However, heavy drinking increases the risk of cognitive impairment. Government guidelines advise us to drink no more than one alcoholic drink daily if we are female and no more than two daily if male, so stick within these limits. Sensible drinking will also help to keep your weight and blood pressure in check.
Avoid smoking
If you currently smoke, seriously consider quitting. Not only does it place you at greater risk of heart and lung diseases and various cancers, but smokers are more likely to experience mental decline, as doing so causes damage to the blood vessels that supply the brain. The good news is that if you stop smoking you can reduce your risk; if you give up when you are 50, by the time you reach 70 your risk of dementia will be no different than someone who has never smoked. Giving up cigarettes is undoubtedly difficult, but making use of smoking cessation counseling, nicotine replacement therapies and medication can increase your chances of success.
Taking these steps won’t just help to prevent cognitive decline, but will provide you with benefits towards some of the other changes that occur during aging [6], as modifying your lifestyle will additionally help to protect your joints, bones, muscles, immune function and other organ systems.