I think it’s safe to say most of us are concerned about cognitive impairment and afflictions of the brain as we age. Our brain is our engine room. It houses a lifetime of memories and it’s responsible for our unique way of interpreting the world.
We have good reason to be concerned. As women we are more susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease than men (and not just because we live longer – that theory has been debunked) We’re also at greater risk of stroke and depression. We’re more likely to be carers, a role that, ironically, puts us at even more risk of developing these potentially devastating conditions.
Furthermore, menopause alters our brain, as research recently published in Nature concludes. So no, you’re not imagining the brain fog. The good news is that cognitive decline and impairment is not a given as we age. For example, many strokes are preventable. Also, even if you are genetically predisposed to Alzheimer’s it’s possible to stave off developing this disease.
What does better brain health mean for you
Recently I put a call out on my Instagram page to ask other midlife women what brain health means to them. Themes of a healthy diet, being physically active and challenging our minds came up. Also, connection with others, mindfulness and a positive attitude were recognised as key practices for a healthy brain.
Any exercise to your big muscle groups is perfect for pushing oxygenated blood to your brain – always a good thing! (Sam)
Meditation and mindfulness have immense power for a stressed brain (Gayle)
My brain feels healthy when I can focus clearly (Natalie)
If you are mentally healthy and engaged the world is such a better place (Tricia)
We have to make choices towards vitality and activity (Robbie)
I love that we have a clear sense of what’s good for our brains. In turn, what’s good for our brain is good for our mental health, our enjoyment of life and our experience of the world. Go us!
The building blocks for better brain health
Taking steps towards better brain health isn’t about eating the one best ‘superfood’, doing a PhD (unless you want to!), being a social butterfly if you’re not, or doing crossword puzzles when you hate them.
It’s about evidence-based practices and strategies that you can incorporate into your everyday life.
A healthy diet
A diet full of vegetables, fruits and whole foods helps keep your heart healthy and your cholesterol levels in check. What’s good for the heart is good for the brain.
Diabetes, elevated cholesterol and blood pressure are all modifiable risk factors for stroke. Know your numbers – your blood pressure, cholesterol and heart rate, and have any abnormalities investigated and treated.
Being physically active
Dr Sanjay Gupta in his book Keep Sharp believes a regular physical fitness routine is the single most important thing to enhance the brain’s function and resiliency to disease. We should aim to move every day, even if it’s just a walk around the block. Did you know that walking is the most underrated exercise? Better still, find something you like doing that increases your heart rate and don’t forget to include strength or resistance exercise each week. You might like to try exercises that combine cognitive and physical fitness like these ones from Rachelle at MEE Active.
Being mentally active
The brain loves novelty. There are so many ways you can challenge your mind: Do a routine task a different way, park in a different spot, walk a different route, learn a new word, do a complex task. By doing so your brain will be establishing new neural pathways and becoming more “plastic” and adding to your brain health bank.
In addition, having a sense of purpose and an attitude of discovery and positivity are known to protect cognition. Enriched life experiences builds reserve and resiliency which as Dr Sanjay Gupta says contributes to “a big backup system in the brain … and may even help counteract the effects of other risk factors” (Keep Sharp, page 117).
We’re social creatures and for the sake of our brains there’s good reason why we should be. Being isolated and not having conversations or communication with other people is a risk factor for developing dementia. I think we know this instinctively: Who hasn’t felt better after having a chat and a laugh with someone? It’s a win-win with instant gratification.
Don’t discount virtual connection or social media. It can be a lifeline for social connection when we’re not able to connect with others in person.
Practices such as yoga and meditation are increasingly being recognised as having positive impacts on brain health, as this systematic literature review found.
Stress elevates the cortisol levels in the blood which is believed to create long-lasting brain changes on the prefrontal cortex area of the brain which is where learning and memory occur. So, it makes sense to incorporate these practices in your life in a way that works for you.
Perhaps you would prefer slower more restorative forms of yoga such as Yin Yoga and Yoga Nidra which can be so beneficial for de-stressing. Interested in meditation but don’t know where to begin? I interviewed my mum, a meditation teacher, and got some tips from her that might help you.
3 things you can do every day for better brain health
Here are three specific things you can do every day to help prevent dementia in later years.
1. Stop multitasking
Once a badge of honour, multitasking is now recognised as risky brain behavior. Constant distractions and mental gymnastics fill our days. Don’t beat yourself up, however, it’s an inherently human trait and one that we are struggling with even more so during a global pandemic.
This excellent article in The Guardian has exercises you can do to improve your ability to focus. Just three minutes a day can get you started. Deep breathing can also help – when I become aware of having too many tabs open at once (literally and figuratively!) I try to take three slow, deep breaths.
Do you have any tips to help with focus? I’d love to know.
2. Floss your teeth
Did you know that the health of your gums are linked to the health your brain? Inflammation in the gums (gingivitis) causes bacteria which has can cross the blood/brain barrier and increase your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Now you know why your dentist is always on your case about flossing. It’s an important preventative health measure that can help to keep bacteria out of your mouth, and your brain.
3. Go to bed on time
If physical exercise is the first most important thing we can do for better brain health then getting enough sleep comes in a close second. Just as children need a consistent bedtime, so do we.
Chronic inadequate sleep puts people at higher risk for dementia, depression and mood disorders, learning and memory problems, heart disease, high blood pressure, weight gain and obesity, diabetes, fall-related injuries, and cancer.
Lack of sleep is not a badge of honour or a sign of integrity.Dr Sanjay Gupta, Keep Sharp, pg 132
It’s a double-edged sword for us because having trouble sleeping is so common in peri-menopause and menopause. If poor sleep is affecting you please talk to your health professional.
Our brains are remarkably resilient
There’s a lot that can go wrong with our brain that we have no control due to our biological gender and our genetic makeup.
The COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer of stress to our already-stressed brains.
All of this is potentially doom and gloom stuff, isn’t it! It doesn’t have to be.
Our lifestyle including our diet, exercise, stress levels and amount of sleep has a huge impact on our brain health not only now in midlife, but for the decades to come. The brain is remarkably resilient and adaptable no matter how old we are. There’s plenty we can do to nourish it, things that help make us feel good and enjoy life into the bargain.
I hope I’ve given you some helpful resources and ideas for everyday strategies for better brain health.