Every brain changes with age, and mental function changes along with it. Mental decline is common, and it’s one of the most feared consequences of aging. But cognitive impairment is not inevitable.
Did you know that your brain is always changing? That’s the one constant about the most complex organ we have that controls every part of us. “Brain plasticity” is the process of the brain to learn new information, grow new connections and repair broken ones. Throughout life, as we age, acquire knowledge and have more experiences, our brain continues to develop.
The condition of your blood vessels may determine a lot about the health of your brain, according to new research.
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh found that a variety of factors including smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes — all conditions that affect your blood vessels or vascular risk factors — may also hurt your brain.
Over time, these factors may lead to brain deterioration and increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.
This new study published March 11 looked at the MRI scans of brains from 9,772 people between the ages of 44 and 79.
Specifically, the researchers, who were led by Simon Cox, PhD, a senior research associate at the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, examined connections between seven vascular risk factors — smoking, hypertension, pulse pressure, diabetes, [high cholesterol], body mass index (BMI), and waist-hip ratio — and structures of the brain responsible for complex thinking. These areas are known to deteriorate as dementia develops.
To determine the impact of these vascular risk factors on brains, the researchers compared brain scans from people of similar head size, age, and sex.
They found that smoking, high blood pressure, and diabetes were the three vascular risk factors with the most consistent connections to brain atrophy and loss of both grey and white brain matter.
Indeed, all risk factors except high cholesterol were associated with some degree of brain health decline.
Vascular risks increase brain health risks
The researchers were able to use the brain scans to quantify exactly how much brain matter is lost when these vascular risk factors are present.
People with the highest vascular risk had around 18 milliliters (ml), or nearly 3 percent, less volume of gray matter compared to people without the risk factors.
Grey matter is brain tissue on the surface of the brain that houses most of the neurons. Neurons send messages through your brain to your body. When they’re impaired, your reactions and processing slow down.
Additionally, these scans showed that individuals with vascular risk had one-and-a-half times the damage to their white matter compared to people without the risks.
White matter is deeper in the brain than gray matter. It naturally declines with age, but previous research has shown that white matter loss is linked to slower thought processing and reduced executive functioning. Vascular risk factors may speed up this loss.
The study also found that damage to the brains wasn’t even across the whole of the brain. Indeed, specific areas were more likely to be affected by the atrophy, and these areas have significant impacts on cognitive health.
“The areas affected were mainly those known to be linked to our more complex thinking skills and to those areas that show changes in dementia and ‘typical’ Alzheimer’s disease,” Cox said. “Although the differences in brain structure were generally quite small, these are only a few possible factors of a potentially huge number of things that might affect brain aging.”
Any perceived protective benefits of younger age are wiped out when these vascular risk factors are present, the researchers also discovered.
“We found that higher vascular risk is linked to worse brain structure, even in adults who were otherwise healthy,” Cox said in a statement. “These links were just as strong for people in middle age as they were for those in later life, and the addition of each risk factor increased the size of the association with worse brain health.”
“No matter what age, our behaviors impact the health of our bodies and our brains,” Dr. David A. Merrill, PhD, neurologist and geriatric psychiatrist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, told Healthline.
“This means that younger adults need to be aware of the importance of not taking on unhealthy habits like smoking, physical inactivity, overeating, or unhealthy eating. Even in younger adults, unhealthy habits can take a toll on the structural integrity of the brain and its connections,” Merrill said.
“This is a very important study, which serves as a wake-up call to all patients who have cardiovascular risk factors such as smoking, high blood pressure, high pulse pressure, diabetes, and obesity,” Guy L. Mintz, director of cardiovascular health and lipidology at Northwell Health’s Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital in Manhasset, New York, told Healthline. “This study demonstrated that these risk factors are associated with brain shrinkage. The cause for this type of brain damage is most likely injury to the blood vessels.”
While this study didn’t connect the changes in brain size and brain matter to changes in thinking skills — future studies from this group may tackle that question — it does point to the importance of preventing vascular risk factors with lifestyle changes and traditional medical approaches when necessary.
Lifestyle changes protect the heart — and the brain“It’s never too late to improve your brain health,” Lainey Younkin, MS, RD, LDN, registered dietitian and founder of Lainey Younkin Nutrition, told Healthline. These tips may help improve your physical health, your brain health, and your cognitive abilities.
Aim for 150 minutes or more of aerobic exercise each week. If you’ve not been moving regularly, don’t worry.
Merrill pointed out that one study found sedentary older adults who participated in a new habit of walking regularly for one year showed significant improvements in memory performance that also related to growth of memory areas in the brain.
Build muscleAerobic exercise coupled with strength training at least two times per week has been shown to improve heart health, according to Merrill. “We now know that these activities in all likelihood also improve brain health,” he said.
Eat a heart-healthy diet
“In addition to eating brain-boosting foods like blueberries, nuts, and fatty fish, cut back on frozen meals, take out, deli meat, and cheese, which are some of the highest sources of sodium in the American diet that can drive up blood pressure,” Younkin said.
She added that there are clear guidelines for how to approach each meal.
“Aim to make half your plate non-starchy vegetables and a quarter of your plate whole grains,” she said. “The increase in fiber and decrease in ‘empty’ carbohydrates will help you maintain a healthy weight and keep your blood sugar stable.”
Be more mindfulAnxiety and stress take a toll on your mental health, but they can also impact your physical and brain health, too. Regular meditation or a mindfulness practice may help reduce the risk of worsening vascular health.
Poor or inadequate sleep is associated with worsening health and vascular risk factors, including high blood pressure and weight gain.
Your brain needs those “off” hours to help clean up neurons and synapses and make memories. When you don’t get quality sleep, your brain health and your physical health are significantly impacted.
Use your brain“Remaining cognitively active through social activities, like attending a book club or taking a cooking class, may help slow down or stave off the development of memory loss and associated depression with aging,” Merrill said.
Watch your blood pressure
Check your blood pressure regularly, or at least every six months. Watch for signs of a creeping increase.
“This study indicates that the 2017 high blood pressure guidelines, which state that high blood pressure is now defined as a blood pressure greater than 130/90, is on the money,” Mintz said. “The new guidelines for high blood pressure will help us recognize people at earlier ages who are at risk for lifelong high blood pressure.”
Get mental stimulation
Through research with mice and humans, scientists have found that brainy activities stimulate new connections between nerve cells and may even help the brain generate new cells, developing neurological “plasticity” and building up a functional reserve that provides a hedge against future cell loss.
Any mentally stimulating activity should help to build up your brain. Read, take courses, try “mental gymnastics,” such as word puzzles or math problems Experiment with things that require manual dexterity as well as mental effort, such as drawing, painting, and other crafts.
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Improve your dietGood nutrition can help your mind as well as your body. For example, people that eat a Mediterranean style diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, unsaturated oils (olive oil) and plant sources of proteins are less likely to develop cognitive impairment and dementia.
Improve your blood pressureHigh blood pressure in midlife increases the risk of cognitive decline in old age. Use lifestyle modification to keep your pressure as low as possible. Stay lean, exercise regularly, limit your alcohol to two drinks a day, reduce stress, and eat right.
Improve your blood sugarDiabetes is an important risk factor for dementia. You can help prevent diabetes by eating right, exercising regularly, and staying lean. But if your blood sugar stays high, you’ll need medication to achieve good control.
Improve your cholesterolHigh levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol are associated with an increased the risk of dementia. Diet, exercise, weight control, and avoiding tobacco will go a long way toward improving your cholesterol levels. But if you need more help, ask your doctor about medication.
Care for your emotionsPeople who are anxious, depressed, sleep-deprived, or exhausted tend to score poorly on cognitive function tests. Poor scores don’t necessarily predict an increased risk of cognitive decline in old age, but good mental health and restful sleep are certainly important goals.
Research connecting poor physical health with deteriorating brain health is increasing. This study finds that vascular risk factors can damage your brain’s health, which could slow thinking skills and even lead to changes that resemble Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Many of these vascular risk factors, however, are preventable.
“This study has a strong public health message,” Mintz said. “Patients can help themselves.”
A healthy lifestyle can help you prevent risk factors like high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. If you already have one or more of these risk factors, you may be able to make lifestyle changes that can reverse the conditions and help improve your brain health.