BrainIf you ask people what it is about aging that concerns them the most, increasingly more people will say brain health and cognitive decline are as important, or more important, than avoiding heart disease or achieving financial security.

A Brain Health Research Study published by AARP in 2014 reported that 41% of adults aged 34 to 49 ranked brain health is the most important component in their overall health.

We know that some cognitive changes are to be expected with aging; however, there’s a lot that can be done in the way of prevention. It is important to think hard about brain preservation and begin practices to optimize it in your 30s, 40s and 50s to try to prevent cognitive problems in your 70s and 80s. This represents a big lag time – however, by the time cognitive changes start to develop, the pathology has been going on for 10, 20 or more years.

The Number One Thing is Physical Activity

Probably one of the most important things one can do to prevent cognitive decline would be to engage in some form of regular physical exercise. Research has clearly shown the cognitive health effects of exercise in addition to its obvious benefits for physical health. Exercise also plays a role in reducing stress, improving mood and helping you get better sleep which are all important for brain health. A recent study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine also found that regular aerobic exercise can increase the size of the hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with memory. Also, a report by the Institute of Medicine Cognitive Aging Report found that physically active adults had a 35% lower risk of cognitive decline compared to their non-active counterparts.

I like to see my patients getting at least 20 to 30 minutes of exercise at least 3 to 5 times a week. More than that is even better if tolerable. It can be walking or whatever you call from with the get your heart pumping, but increasing your activity from whatever level you are currently at would be of benefit.

Maintaining Cardiovascular Health

The same things that cause cardiovascular disease can also result in cerebrovascular disease and thus the development of dementia. Therefore it seems obvious that it’s very important to control cardiovascular risk factors like high blood pressure and unhealthy cholesterol values. Managing blood sugar at healthy levels are also very important and are a big problem in our culture. Maintaining cardiovascular health is primarily diet driven – although regular exercise is also important.

Eating a Healthy Diet

Controlling your weight and eating a healthy relatively low carbohydrate diet are critically important to health maintenance. It’s especially important to follow the practices after your 40th birthday – soon after that is usually the time things start to fall apart for most people.

A large multinational study appearing in Neurology in 2015 examined the association between diet quality and brain health and found that a healthy diet, particularly the Mediterranean diet, was associated with a reduced risk of cognitive impairment, possibly by helping to lower overall cardiovascular risk factors or by helping to reduce inflammation in the body that can impact plaque buildup.

The Mediterranean diet emphasizes eating primarily plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, whole grains and olive oil — and limiting the consumption of red meat, instead opting for fish and chicken, and consuming red wine in moderation.

Stimulating Your Brain

“Cognitive activity can range anywhere from continuing to engage in one’s occupation, to maintaining some sort of cognitively stimulating avocational activities like playing chess or the piano, to formalized cognitive training programs. The phrase “use it or lose it” is a powerful truth when it comes to cognition.

The 2014 Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study, funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH), showed that brain training to improve cognitive abilities had lasting effects that persisted for as much as five years for memory and as long as ten years in the areas of reasoning and speed of processing.

Social Engagement

Being socially active and avoiding social isolation positively enhance every aspect of your health: physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. Engaging with others stimulates your brain and studies have shown that people who continue to have meaningful interactions through social connections live longer and have better health.

The bottom line:

If your brain is not functioning then, for all practical purposes, the party is over. Brain function can be the Achilles’ heel of aging and some people and steps can be taken to increase your chances of a long, rich intellectual lifespan. It’s never too late to start – so let’s get to it!