Our brains are mysterious, incredible things. So it’s natural to want to keep them healthy and functioning at their best for as long as we can.
As we get older, it’s normal to experience some mild changes in memory and attention – like walking into a room and forgetting why you went in there.1
But age also increases our risk of dementia, which can significantly impair thinking, behaviour and the ability to do everyday tasks.2
A healthy brain starts now
The good news is, there are things we can do to support our brains and reduce our risk of dementia later in life – and the best time to start is right now.3
“Don’t leave it until you’re 70 before you think about your brain health,” says Associate Professor Michael Woodward AM, Director of Aged Care Research at Austin Health and an honorary medical advisor to Dementia Australia.
“It’s important at any age, but we should start thinking about it particularly in mid-life – in the same way that we think about heart health.”3
So what does a brain-healthy lifestyle look like? Here, A/Prof Woodward shares some expert advice.
1. Get regular exercise
Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your brain, A/Prof Woodward says.
“Exercise supports brain health in a number of important ways,” he says. “It helps improve blood flow, supports brain connections, and reduces inflammation.”
To get these benefits, A/Prof Woodward recommends aiming for around 40 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, five times a week.
This could be brisk walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, dancing, or anything that gets your heart beating faster.4
“Of course, if you haven’t exercised much before, or you have any physical ailments, you might need to get advice from your GP or an exercise physiologist,” he says.
2. Eat healthy food, based on a Mediterranean diet pattern
A healthy diet rich in vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids can also play an important role in supporting your brain health.4
A/Prof Woodward recommends taking some cues from the Mediterranean diet – an eating pattern that has been linked to reduced risk of a number of chronic health conditions.5
“In the traditional villages of Italy and Greece, they would mostly eat what you could grow in your backyard and what you could catch in the nearby sea,” he says.
A few healthy foods and nutrients he suggests focusing on include:
- Fresh fruits and vegetables, especially dark leafy greens
- Healthy fats, like those found in olive oil, avocado and nuts and seeds
- Fish, especially oily fish like salmon – another good source of healthy fats and protein
- Legumes, a good source of fibre and plant-based protein
- Wholegrains, which give you a steady release of energy and help keep blood glucose stable.
For your overall health and your brain, it’s also recommended to limit saturated fats, processed foods, excess salt, sweet treats and alcohol.4
If you need more guidance on developing a healthy eating plan, a dietitian can give you personalised advice for your needs.
3. Challenge your brain
Staying mentally active helps to build new brain cells and strengthen connections between them.6
“Just as we make time for exercise, we should do half an hour, several times a week, of something that’s mentally stimulating,” A/Prof Woodward says.
“It should be something you enjoy, but that stretches you a little bit.”
A few examples of things that can help keep your mind active include:
- Doing sudoku, crosswords or jigsaw puzzles
- Learning a new language
- Playing a musical instrument
- Playing chess or bridge
- Doing a craft like sewing or woodwork
4. Stay socially connected and look after your mental health
Staying socially engaged is thought to help reduce your risk of cognitive decline.4
“Keeping in touch with your family, your friends, and your social, community or professional groups is good for both your cognitive health and mental health,” A/Prof Woodward says.
Depression is a key risk factor for dementia, and reducing loneliness can help to improve your mental health.4
If you are experiencing depression, it’s important to seek help. As a first step, talk to your GP, who can assess your mental health and offer advice, or refer you to a specialist if needed.
5. Look after your heart health
There’s a connection between a healthy heart and a healthy brain, A/Prof Woodward says.
People who have health conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease and obesity have a higher risk of developing dementia later in life.7
“The same things that are good for your heart are good for your brain,” A/Prof Woodward says.
That includes things like a healthy diet, exercise and not smoking, as well as having regular check-ups to monitor things like:
- Your weight
- Your blood pressure
- Your cholesterol levels
- Your blood glucose levels.7
6. Check your hearing
Another interesting connection is between dementia risk and hearing loss.4
People with even mild hearing loss are twice as likely to develop dementia than people with normal hearing.4
“In fact, in a major recent report, the Lancet Commission on Dementia, hearing loss or deafness was regarded as the most significant of the modifiable risk factors for dementia,” A/Prof Woodward says.3
He says this is likely because hearing loss can make it more difficult to engage in conversations, leading to less stimulation.
The good news is, studies suggest using hearing aids (if needed) can help protect against this dementia risk.3
7. Don’t smoke, and limit your alcohol
Quitting smoking isn’t often easy, but it’s one of the best things you can do for your health – and that includes your brain health.8
If you need help quitting, Quitline offers lots of free resources and support.
Drinking too much alcohol over time can also increase your risk of cognitive decline and dementia.7
If you drink alcohol, try to stick to the recommended Australian guidelines of no more than 10 standard drinks in a week, and no more than four standard drinks in any one day.9
A final word on brain health
If you are worried about your memory, it’s important to talk to your doctor, A/Prof Woodward says.
“Don’t just assume that it's old age – it is not normal to have significant memory problems in old age.”
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This article contains general information only and does not take into account the health, personal situation or
needs of any person. In conjunction with your GP or treating health care professional, please consider whether
the information is suitable for you and your personal circumstances.