You may spend time keeping your body, face and even your gut in top condition, but are you also futureproofing your brain? Our experts reveal how to boost your brain health so that what you do now helps you stay sharper for longer
We all know the importance of looking after our body, keeping it in top condition with a healthy diet and exercise routine. We’re increasingly aware that our gut health too can impact so many aspects of our lives beyond digestion, including our mood. But when did you last consider your brain health? Research shows it’s possible to age-proof your brain, lowering your risk of the two biggest causes of death in women, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, in part by maintaining a healthy mind, according to research organisation the Brain Health Network .
Dementia is no longer deemed an inevitable consequence of ageing. In fact, a staggering 40 per cent of cases could be delayed by tackling a range of risk factors, a ccording to new research by Alzheimer’s UK . Red flags include high cholesterol and a lack of exercise, but everything from socialising and keeping active – physically and mentally – to looking after your heart health can make a big difference.
Dementia affects more women than men - in fact women outnumber men 2:1 worldwide, reports the Alzheimer’s Society . Whatever your age, it’s never too early to switch to brain-healthy foods and optimise your lifestyle and sleep habits. We’re now wising up to the fact that looking after our brain is an investment in our future.
Where to start? Follow our brain health tips to reduce your risk of developing dementia, boost your brainpower and stay razor-sharp.
1 What’s the best diet for brain health?
Yes, what we eat really does affect how we think, how our memory works and how likely we are to get Alzheimer’s and dementia. “New evidence is emerging as to how food is linked to brain health,” says registered nutritionist Rob Hobson .
Two diets score well for brain health: The Mediterranean diet and the MIND diet . “The Mediterranean diet shows positive effects on brain health, especially for dementia,” explains Hobson. “This type of diet shows that foods that are good for the heart tend to be good for the brain, given the connection between inflammation and both diseases.”
The Mediterranean diet is based on:
● High intake of fruit, vegetables, legumes and cereal.
● Moderate intake of fish (include oily fish)
● Low to moderate intake of dairy foods
● Low intake of meat and poultry
● A high ratio of monounsaturated fats (nuts, seeds, avocados and olive oil) to saturated fats (found in animal products such as meat and dairy and also coconut oil)
“Following the Mediterranean Diet is associated with improved cognition in older age and a lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease,” says Hobson. Another study funded by Age UK looked at brain size (volume) among a large cohort of Scottish people who were dementia-free. It found that those who didn’t adhere closely to the Med Diet were more likely to have a higher loss of total brain volume.”
The MIND diet (standing for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) was created by researchers at Rush University in Chicago, to help prevent dementia and slow age-related loss of brain function. It blends two diets that reduce the risk of heart and circulatory disease: the Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which can help control blood pressure, another risk factor for dementia.
The MIND diet for brain health lists ten foods associated with improved cognitive function – whole grains, green leafy veg, beans, lentils, blueberries etc and several inflammation-causing foods to limit such as fried and fast food, cheese, pastries, sweets, butter etc.
2. Micro-dose your social life
Your social life, how often you stimulate your mind and even the quantity and quality of your rest, all play a part in your brain health too. Having close bonds with friends and family, and joining in meaningful social activities can help maintain your thinking skills in later life, according to research from Age UK .
“We are social creatures, so craving connections with others is essentially hard-wired into your brain,” says psychologist Dr Meg Arroll, who works with Healthspan . “In fact, this need is so fundamental that the brain perceives a threat to social connections similarly to physical sensations – loneliness can feel like pain and it produces inflammation in the body, particularly during times of stress.”
A daily dose of social interaction is key for optimum brain health, but even brief connections can help. “Micro-interactions, for example, a quick chat with a stranger in a queue have been curtailed by the pandemic, but are vital for a sense of connectedness,” says Dr Arroll.
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3. Prioritise sleep for better brain function
Rest is a pillar of our wellbeing that we often neglect, but sleep is crucial for our brain health. “When we sleep, our brain remains highly active,” explains sleep expert Lucy Shrimpton, founder of The Sleep Nanny website. “It’s when memory consolidation takes place, where your brain files everything you’ve learned. During sleep, we cleanse toxins from the brain and the communication between the cells improves.”
“Good sleep not only boosts your mental wellbeing, cognitive function , mood and memory, but can even decrease the risk of serious conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, stroke and kidney disease,” adds Shrimpton.
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The optimum night’s sleep is seven to eight hours, she explains, but often it’s quality, not quantity, that counts. “Getting plenty of poor-quality sleep will not provide the same benefits for the brain as good quality sleep,” says Shrimpton. “The sleep cycle includes several stages and your brain functions differently at each point. Each stage varies in length. Stage one may last one to five minutes, then stage two kicks in, lasting anywhere from ten to 60 minutes. The third and fourth stages of sleep are the deepest, when muscle and tissue repair take place, cells regenerate and your immune system is strengthened. The vital fifth stage, known as REM sleep, is when dreaming plays a role in memory consolidation. Then the entire cycle repeats itself.”
For better brain health, it’s vital your body goes through all stages of sleep, so you need to practise what’s known as good ‘sleep hygiene’, according to the Sleep Foundation , establishing a proper wind-down routine before bed so you sleep deeply through the night. “Keep technology out of the bedroom and keep the temperature in your bedroom cool (ideally 18°C ),’ says Dr Arroll.
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Bear in mind that booking in some self-care is important too. “Rest is often said to be the poor relative of sleep, but it shouldn’t be,” explains Dr Arroll. “It’s crucial we create some rest time every day.”
Mindfulness is a great way to switch off. “Include ‘mindful moments’ in your day by unplugging from technology and noticing the colours, smells and sounds around you,” she recommends. “Intrusive thoughts are normal when you practise mindfulness, so gently nudge them away and refocus on your environment. It can be helpful to use an object at first and consciously notice every minor detail – this will allow your mind to rest.”
4. Keep learning in order to stay sharp
If, like many of us, you’re addicted to the new online game Wordle , or like Davina McCall , a regular on the killer sudoku, you’re giving your brain an age-proofing workout – bonus! “Our brains have the ability to evolve until the day we die, a process known as ‘neuroplasticity’,” explains Dr Arroll. “Learning is good for your health as it exercises your mind. When you learn something new, your brain forms new connections.”
Repeating a new skill such as practising a musical instrument will help the technique become embedded over time. Without physical exercise, your muscles will weaken, and your brain is the same. “This mental muscle strengthening improves concentration and memory, and higher-order cognitive functions such as decision-making and problem-solving.”
Keeping your brain firing on all cylinders has also been shown to help us as we age. “Studies show that continued learning over our lifespans lowers our chance of developing dementia,” adds Dr Arroll.
5. Schedule cardio and strength training for brain health
“Being active increases your heart rate, which pumps more oxygen to the brain,” says personal trainer Sarah Campus . “It also helps the release of hormones, which provide an ideal environment for the growth of brain cells. Exercise promotes neuroplasticity too by stimulating the growth of new connections between cells in many vital areas of the brain located in the cerebral cortex.”
“Regular exercise can also help remodel your brain’s ‘reward system’, leading to higher levels of dopamine (the ‘reward’ neurotransmitter) and more dopamine receptors,” she adds. In this way, exercise can not only alleviate low mood, but also boost your capacity for joy!
Which exercise is best for brain health? Go for “aerobic exercises, such as running , swimming, HIIT, cycling and walking ,” explains Campus. “These are considered best for brain health because they increase your heart rate, which means the body pumps more blood to your head. But s trength training and lifting weights also bring benefits by increasing heart rate. They promote cardiovascular health, improve blood flow to the brain, reduce inflammation and lower levels of stress hormone ( cortisol ). Combine both aerobic and strength training every week to help you achieve optimal brain health.”
6. Consider Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT)
Oestrogen , the sex hormone that we make naturally but which declines in perimenopause , has many beneficial effects on the brain, says Dr Sarah Brewer, GP and Medical Director of Healthspan . There’s every reason to consider topping up our levels to what they once were via HRT when we hit our mid-40s and beyond.
“As well as reducing the brain fog and anxiety that can be linked to dipping levels of oestrogen, there is some evidence that oestrogen can reduce conditions such as depression, Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia,” she says. Studies show that oestrogen increases the number of connections (synapses) between cells in parts of the brain involved in memory and intellect, such as the hippocampus and frontal cortex, as boosting the effects of your brain’s ‘cholinergic’ system, which is an important neuron function in memory, learning, and other essential aspects of cognition.”
Unsure about HRT? Your GP can advise on whether it’s likely to suit you based on your personal and family history. “If you are unable or unwilling to take prescribed HRT, you may find plant oestrogens such as soy isoflavones helpful,” says Dr Brewer.
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7. Get your fix of brain foods
It’s important to choose the right nutrition for better brain health, so which nutrients are the best? There are six gold star nutrients: omega-3 fatty acids; vitamins B, D and E; choline and flavonoids, which can all improve cognitive functioning in older people, according to nutritionist Rob Hobson. He also notes that of course caffeine , “can improve mental focus in the short-term” although it can of course mess with that other pillar of brain health - sleep. If you’re sensitive to caffeine keep it to before midday.
Here’s what the six super-star nutrients do and where to find them...
Omega-3 fatty acids
Found in: oily fish (salmon, trout, mackerel, herring), nuts and seeds.
“Evidence suggests omega-3 fatty acids have a positive effect on brain health and can help reduce the risk of dementia,” says Hobson. “These essential fatty acids are required throughout life, from early cognitive development through to learning and memory in adulthood. In fact, brain cells with high levels of omega-3 in their membranes are thought to be better at communicating with other cells – a vital process for brain function. It can also help the body’s immune response, reduce inflammation and protect cells from oxidative stress; both of which are good for preventing Alzheimer’s disease.
Try: Healthspan Tumeric and Super Strength Omega 3 , 60 capsules, £18.95.
Found in: eggs, milk, leafy greens, salmon, liver, beef, legumes, chicken, turkey, yoghurt, nutritional yeast, oysters, pork, fortified cereal, muscles and clams.
“Several vitamins and minerals contribute to a healthy nervous system and the reduction of tiredness and fatigue. B5 (pantothenic acid) can help with normal mental performance. B1, B3, B6, B12 biotin and folate are all good for normal psychological function, and iodine, iron and zinc are also needed to support cognitive function. Iron and magnesium also help to reduce tiredness and fatigue.”
Found in: oily fish, egg yolk, mushrooms that are grown under UV light, fortified foods such as breakfast cereals.
This nutrient has also been shown to help preserve cognition in the elderly and deficiency of this nutrient has been linked to an increased risk of dementia in people over the age of 65,” says Hobson. “Bear in mind it’s not possible to get everything you need from the sun during the winter months, so supplementing your diet is essential – even more as we get older as our ability to convert UV rays into vitamin D declines.”
Found in: olive oil, nuts, nut butter, seeds and wholewheat, avocado, spinach, butternut squash, kiwifruit, broccoli, trout, prawns.
Eating more nuts and seeds is a fast way to get your vitamin E fix. A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology explored the number of antioxidants, including vitamin E, and found that decreasing levels of this vitamin were linked to poor memory.
Both nuts and seeds are rich in vitamin E which help to protect cells in the body from oxidative stress caused by free radicals. A study in the Journal Of Nutrition and Healthy Ageing found that people who ate more nuts had better brain functioning in older age. “The ageing brain may be more exposed to this type of oxidative stress and nutrients such as vitamin E may support brain health in older age,” adds Hobson.
Found in: eggs, dairy foods, liver, cod, shiitake mushrooms, beef, soy foods, chicken breast, salmon, prawns, chickpeas, edamame, yoghurt, broccoli, peas.
Choline is used by the body to produce the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, which is essential for brain and nervous system functions including memory, muscle control and mood, according to Arizona State University .
Found in: citrus fruits, berries, dark chocolate, nuts, onions, ginger, broccoli, asparagus, dark leafy greens, green tea, celery, parsley, oregano, red and purple fruits and veggies (berries, red cabbage, grapes, cherries), soy foods (tofu, tempeh, miso, edamame).
“A recent study published in the Journal Neurology found that people with the highest daily flavonoid intakes were 19 per cent less likely to report trouble with memory and thinking, in comparison to people with the lowest daily flavonoid intakes,” Hobson explains.
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Side note: Do smart supplements aka nootropics work for brain health?
Nootropics aka ‘smart drugs’ are having a moment. But what are they? “Nootropic supplements normally contain a combination of ingredients thought to enhance brain function and these include herbal medicines, omega 3s, vitamins, minerals and amino acids,” explains Hobson. “The combinations are referred to as ‘stacks’ and taking them is referred to as ‘stacking’.”
“Some small studies show that certain nootropic supplements can affect the brain,” says Hobson. “But there is a lack of evidence from large, controlled studies to show that some of these supplements consistently work and whether they’re completely safe. Due to the lack of research, experts can’t say for sure that over-the-counter nootropics improve thinking or brain function — or that everyone can safely use them.”
One of the best-known nootropics is Ginkgo biloba, also known as the maidenhair tree, a species of tree native to China – studies have shown it improves blood flow to the brain and acts as an antioxidant.
Try Healthspan Brain Synergex , £16.95 for 28 day supply, which compromises of gingko, omega 3, B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12), vitamin D, folic acid, iodine and phosphatidylserine.
And what NOT to eat - nutrients that decrease your brain function
Take note of what to avoid too. When it comes to brain power, high-sugar foods and other refined carbs, such as those made from white flour are not your friends. “Foods with a high glycemic load have been shown to impair brain function,” explains Hobson. “In fact, a study of university students found that those with a higher intake of refined sugar had a poorer memory. This could be due to inflammation of the hippocampus, the part of the brain affecting memory.”
Of course, mainlining highly processed foods won’t do your brain health – or your waistline – any favours either. He adds: “These foods are high in fat and salt, encouraging weight gain and potentially leading to high blood pressure, a known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.”
Rob Hobson is a registered nutritionist and Head of Nutrition for wellbeing brand Healthspan at www.robhobson.co.uk
Thanks to: Dr Meg Arroll, chartered psychologist, scientist and author for Healthspan, sleep expert Lucy Shrimpton and personal trainer Sarah Campus.
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