With dementia now Australia’s second-highest cause of death, keeping your brain healthy is more important than ever. Here’s how to look after yours, with tips from a leading Australian brain health researcher.
It may weigh just over a kilo and sit quietly between your ears, but your brain controls everything from your heartbeat to your ability to make plans. Dementia is Australia’s second leading cause of death overall, and the leading cause of death for women, so keeping your brain healthy is vital for long-term wellbeing.
Here’s what the research says about brain health, with advice from Professor Kaarin Anstey—a Scientia Professor of Psychology and Director of the UNSW Ageing Futures Institute, as well as a senior principal research scientist at Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA).
Treat your brain like your superannuation
From the age of about 40, your brain loses around five per cent of its weight each decade, Professor Anstey explains.
“Many factors are involved,” she says. “It’s partly the normal ageing process, then there’s the effects of lifestyle, hormones and some medical conditions.”
She notes that, to help your brain age well, you should start good health behaviours as early as possible. She likens investing in brain health to investing in super.
“The benefits accumulate over time. You can’t wait until retirement and say, ‘I’d better start putting money away now’. You need to be looking after your brain health throughout your life.”
Start to ‘mind’ your diet
One positive investment is a healthy diet. Professor Anstey explains that Australian research has indicated the ‘MIND diet’ has shown promise.
The study, which Professor Anstey led, followed 1,220 adults aged 60 and older for 12 years. Following the MIND diet was linked to 19 per cent reduced odds of developing mild cognitive impairment or dementia.
The MIND diet incorporates 15 elements including green leafy vegetables, whole grains, berries, olive oil and small amounts of red meat.
A healthy diet can also help to reduce the risk of midlife obesity, which Anstey says increases the risk of late-life dementia.
Dementia Australia notes that studies have shown a higher risk for developing dementia in people with diets high in saturated and trans fats, and lower risk for people whose diets favour unsaturated, unhydrogenated fats.
Be smart with your active choices
Dementia Australia adds that several studies have found that physical activity throughout life is linked to a lower risk of cognitive decline and dementia. This may be because physical activity reduces risk for other conditions that heighten dementia risk—including heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Professor Anstey explains that physical activity increases oxygen to the brain and may even help the growth of nerve cells. “Studies in animals given an exercise intervention have seen neurones grow,” she explains, “so it could have a direct benefit on brain health.”
She adds that physical activity is an effective mood stabiliser. Given that mental health problems such as depression are risk factors for dementia, this could be another way it works.
Manage mental health
In fact, the world’s largest brain imaging study—published in 2018 in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease—found that schizophrenia caused four years of accelerated brain ageing, on average. The study, which examined scans of 128 brain regions in more than 30,000 people from 9 months to 105 years of age, also found that cannabis abuse, bipolar disorder and alcohol abuse were linked with accelerated brain ageing.
This study highlights the importance of looking after your mental health and getting appropriate treatment for disorders. Dementia Australia says that looking after your brain health means looking after your mental health, too.
Source some social solutions
Dementia Australia also recommends getting involved in social activity in the five steps to maximise brain health fact sheet. Spending time doing things that interest you, with people whose company you enjoy, has brain-boosting benefits.
Social activity helps build new brain cells and strengthen connections between them, which can help to protect you against dementia. Activities that blend social interaction, physical activity and a mental challenge offer an even bigger benefit.
Professor Anstey says there is evidence that people who lead a cognitively stimulating lifestyle have a reduced dementia risk. This includes things such as cultural activities, playing intellectually-stimulating games and writing emails.
Healthy heart, healthy brain
“As a rule, what’s good for your heart is also good for your brain,” says Professor Anstey. This is because conditions that affect the blood vessels—such as high cholesterol, obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes—can also raise the risk of developing dementia.
If you smoke, seek help to quit. And have regular health checks to look out for the above conditions.
Strive for good balance
Professor Anstey emphasises that having risk factors doesn’t mean you will get dementia. Nor does not having any mean you won’t. “It’s important that we get a balanced message,” she says.
The most important thing is to make positive changes as early as possible and to follow them consistently.