Even before you leave the womb, your brain works throughout your life to control your body’s functions and helps you understand and interact with the world around you. Maintaining a healthy brain will help your mind stay clear and active, so that you can continue to work, rest and play.

The importance of heart health has long been promoted, but brain health is just as crucial for our ability to think, act and live well. Brain health is about reducing risk factors, keeping your mind active and getting the very best out of your brain as you get older.

Chronic conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure together with family history and the way we live our lives have an impact on the healthy function of our brains. All of these factors can increase the risk of developing diseases like Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia. We can’t change our genetic heritage, but we can make lifestyle changes that can reduce the risk of developing dementia and mild cognitive decline. Caroline Abrahams, director of Age UK said:

‘The changes that we need to make to keep our brains healthy are already proven to be good for the heart and overall health, so it’s common sense for us all to try to build them into our lives.’

Does brain health make a difference?

There’s increasing evidence that the choices we make in life can have significant impacts on the health of our minds and our bodies as we grow older. Suffering from Alzheimer’s, stroke or other forms of dementia is not just a matter of bad luck. Doctors and scientific researchers have discovered that it’s possible to improve brain health and reduce the risk of dementia and age-related cognitive decline by making lifestyle changes.

Regular physical exercise, cutting bad habits like cigarettes and alcohol, eating a balanced diet and staying socially active can all boost brain health. There are no guarantees, we’ve all seen people who have still been affected by Alzheimer’s, despite being healthy and clean living. However, living well does make a real difference. Statistically, a healthy lifestyle will not just reduce your risk of dementia, it will also protect against other serious conditions like diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Brain changes

The brain changes throughout life, adapting to things we have learned and experienced. In a healthy brain, new connections continually develop and broken ones are repaired. As we get older, particularly from middle age onwards, changes can start to happen within the brain so that there’s a gradual decrease in mental capabilities. This is known as age-related cognitive decline, and it typically results in people becoming more forgetful and less mentally sharp. So, although brain health is important at every age, it becomes more imperative as we grow older.

Mental decline is one of the most frightening aspects of aging, but it is not inevitable, by working to improve brain health you can help maintain your memory, understanding, communication and quality of life.

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Mild cognitive impairment and brain health

Mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, is a condition in which you may have some minor changes in your ability to think clearly and remember things. In MCI, memory lapses may be worse than a healthy person of the same age may experience, but are not bad enough to affect daily life. For example, many healthy people may forget the occasional word or struggle to remember directions. However, being unable to remember the names of people close to you or getting lost in a familiar location is not normal.

MCI is a common problem, with up to one in five people over 65 estimated to be affected. It is not a form of dementia, but research suggests that people with mild cognitive impairment are more likely to develop dementia in the future.

The good news is that by improving brain health, it’s possible to decrease the risk of developing MCI, and to prevent an existing impairment progressing to become dementia.

Dementia and brain health

Dementia is the term used to describe a specific set of symptoms related to mental function. These include forgetfulness, difficulties with thinking and solving problems, impaired communication and disturbed changes. Dementia is progressive, meaning that symptoms can be very mild in the early days, but they gradually increase until they can affect an individual’s ability to live safely and independently.

Dementia is common, particularly in the elderly. It is estimated to affect around one in three people over the age of 65. Most of us will have had our lives impacted by dementia, either within the family or in someone else that we love. The environment and our genes contribute to each individual’s chance of developing the condition but research suggests that lifestyle is responsible for more than 75% of the brain damage associated with the disease. So, by adopting healthy habits, you can increase your brain health and prevent dementia in the future. In fact, by living a healthier life, you could slash your risk of dementia by more than a third.

Healthy life, healthy brain

Every day there’s a new health scare. Sugar, fat, cooking pans and pollutants have all at some stage been highlighted as public health enemies. It can be difficult to know which guidance to follow. The truth is that a number of different things can influence whether you develop cognitive decline, MCI or dementia, try and watch these and you can help keep your brain fit and firing, whatever your age.

Control chronic conditions – High blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol can impair your brain health. Have regular health checks to screen for any problems and ensure any medication keeps these conditions under control.

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Brain training Keeping the brain active is an important aspect of brain health. Challenging mental activities stimulate the formation of new nerve cells connections and may encourage new cell generation. Try crosswords, puzzles, crafts and books to keep your mind alert and ready for anything.

Live an active life – Regular exercise doesn’t just boost your muscles; it can also increase the network of blood vessels that supply the part of the brain responsible for thought. Exercise also helps you stay slimmer, protects against diabetes and lowers blood pressure so it can protect your brain in a number of different ways.

Eat well – A balanced diet can nourish your mind and your body. The Mediterranean diet can prevent a decline in brain health. Choose fresh, natural produce with lower levels of sugar, processed foods and saturated fats. Fruit, vegetables, lean protein and healthy oils from olives, fish, nuts and avocados will help protect the brain.

Give up smoking – Smoking increases your risk of heart disease, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease. In research, people who smoked between ten and twenty cigarettes a day had a 44 percent greater risk of getting dementia. Giving up cigarettes is difficult, but it can really help your brain stay sharp and healthy.

Enjoy alcohol in moderation – Too much alcohol can increase the risk of dementia, but a little of what you fancy may actually do you good. Moderate levels of alcohol, under the government recommendation of 14 units a week, may help prevent memory loss.

Stay social – Friends and family can be good for your brain health. People with strong social connections tend to have lower blood pressure, a decreased risk of dementia, and a longer life expectancy. Studies suggest that hearing loss, and the isolation associated with it, can be a significant contributor to cognitive decline.

Get quality sleep – Sleep is a chance for our bodies to rest and repair the damage inflicted by daily life. It can be difficult to concentrate and function when we’re sleep deprived, with most adults needing between seven and nine hours to perform at their cognitive peak.

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Dr Jane Gilbert

Jane has over 20 years’ experience as a health writer and TV presenter. Jane writes on a wide variety of clinical and care topics – from explaining the latest studies and research to unpacking conditions and discussing treatment options. Jane holds a MBBS degree from Imperial College, London and spent seven years working in the NHS.

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