4 habits to promote brain health and lower dementia risk

Excerpt: Five new studies show how lifestyle prescriptions promote brain health with aging and lower dementia risk. Four key lifestyle factors – regular physical activity, mental stimulation, social engagement, and good nutrition – each help to keep your mind sharp and lower the risk of developing dementia. Combining several healthy habits – such as a healthy diet and aerobic exercise – has a bigger positive impact than any single lifestyle factor on brain health.

For years, evidence has been growing that lifestyle prescriptions are the best preventive medicine to keep your brain healthy and lower your dementia risk. Five new studies have been published in leading scientific journals within the past year that show how four key lifestyle factors—physical activity, mental stimulation, good nutrition, and social engagement—can make a big difference in protecting aging brain health and helping to delay or prevent dementia.

Here are the latest research findings from these studies, demonstrating and highlighting the protective benefits of these four healthy habits in keeping your mind sharp:

  1. Exercise improves cognition and protects brain tissue. Older adults who led a physically active lifestyle as they aged improved cognitive function and showed less damage to their white matter brain tissue on MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans than less active seniors,* reported a 2021 PLOS ONE study. White matter tissue damage is associated with greater cognitive decline.

  2. Keeping the brain active helps delay dementia. People with an average age of 80 who engaged in mentally stimulating activities every day or almost every day developed Alzheimer’s disease five years later than those who had less mental stimulation in daily life,* according to a 2021 Neurology study. Keeping your mind active later in life through inexpensive, accessible activities such as reading, writing letters, playing games or doing puzzles can help delay dementia onset,* the researchers advised.

  3. Eating brightly coloured fruits lowers dementia risk. People who eat at least half a serving per day of colourful fruits and vegetables – like strawberries, oranges, grapefruits, peppers, apples and bananas – have a lower risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease,* reported a 2021 Rush University study. Many colourful fruits and vegetables, as well as tea, are rich in the antioxidant flavonol,* which was shown to have a protective effect.

  4. Socially connected brains look healthier. A growing body of research is showing that social isolation increases the risk of cognitive decline and dementia.* Now, McGill University researchers report in a Nature Communications study that the brains of lonely people look different than those of people who are less isolated. A brain area, called the default network, is enlarged in lonely people, with changes similar to those seen in MRIs of people with Alzheimer’s disease.* The researchers suggest lonely people rely more on using their default network to imagine social relationships in the absence of social interactions.

  5. Healthy diet and aerobic exercise improve memory and thinking. Few long-term randomized controlled trials (RCTs)—studies designed to prove cause and effect—have investigated the combined effect of healthy eating and exercise on memory and thinking in cognitively healthy adults. A long-term RCT of 1,400 older women and men in Finland found that those who followed a healthy diet and did aerobic exercise five times a week improved their memory and thinking skills over a period of four years,* reported a 2021 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Chartwell Retirement Residences offers a wide range of recreational experiences that give residents easy, accessible opportunities to be physically active, mentally stimulated and socially engaged each day, along with tasty, nutritious meals that promote a healthy mind and body. If you have a loved one with dementia, Chartwell’s unique Memory Living program and community-based model of care also provide the support they may need to live safely and with the quality of life they deserve.

The following sources are references for this blog in order of appearance:

  1. PLOS ONE. “Physical activity, brain tissue microstructure, and cognition in older adults.” (2021), online: https://www.scilit.net/article/8b1d86b2ae22c76f2e4ef37d728e298c
  2. Neurology. “Cognitive activity and onset age of incident Alzheimer Disease dementia.” (2021), online: https://n.neurology.org/content/97/9/e922
  3. Science Daily. “Think about this: Keeping your brain active may delay Alzheimer’s dementia 5 years.” (2021), online: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/07/210714170134.htm
  4. Science Daily. “Adding color to your plate may lower risk of cognitive decline.” (2021), online: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/07/210729122215.htm
  5. Nature Communications. “The default network of the human brain is associated with perceived isolation.” (2020), online: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-20039-w
  6. CTV News. “Lonely people’s brains look different, study finds.” (2020), online: https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/lonely-people-s-brains-look-different-study-finds-1.5232062
  7. The Globe and Mail. “Healthy diet and aerobic exercise key to a healthy brain.” (2021), online: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/article-a-healthy-diet-plus-aerobic-exercise-preserves-cognition/
  8. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. “Exercise, diet, and cognition in a 4-year randomized controlled trial: Dose-Responses to exercise training (DR’s EXTRA).” (2021), online: https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/113/6/1428/6179022