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How to Keep Your Brain Healthy and Mind Intact

Several studies say simple lifestyle choices help preserve thinking and memory.

Key points

  • Both diet and exercise play important roles in maintaining good brain health and cognition.
  • Maintaining gut health with probiotic foods or supplements may help protect thinking and memory.
  • Multivitamin supplements may help improve cognition in people with mild cognitive impairment.
  • A 30-minute walk several times a week may be all you need to preserve brain health as you age.
Moshe Harosh/Pixabay
Moshe Harosh/Pixabay

The list of top five diet plans promoted for overall good health in the United States includes the MIND diet, otherwise known as the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. The MIND diet is a plant-based plan that recommends eating leafy green vegetables, nuts, whole grains, other vegetables daily, berries five times a week, and fish once a week in an otherwise lean and healthy diet.

Though weight loss is possible on the MIND diet, it is not a short-term diet developed with any thought or promise of weight control; it is simply a healthy food plan to follow for life designed to help you sustain good physical and mental health as you age.

The MIND diet was developed by a nutritional epidemiologist and first published in 2015. In a study funded by the National Institute on Aging, those participants who carefully and strictly followed the MIND diet lowered their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by more than 50 percent. Those who followed the diet a bit more casually were still able to reduce their risk by 35 percent. Other studies have linked the MIND diet to better overall cognition and physical speed in adults 60 and older. In two recently published studies, both probiotics and multivitamin supplements have been added to the list of nutritional choices that could benefit the brain.

The results of a study from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, published in the March 31, 2023 issue of the journal Nature: Scientific Reports, helped strengthen what is known about the belly-brain connection and confirmed a link between gut health—as determined by the balance of good and bad bacteria in the microbiome of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract—and the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers identified four types of bacteria that potentially promote the development of Alzheimer’s disease and six that protect the microbiome and decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s. The researchers pointed out that a person’s genes can influence the makeup of an individual’s microbiome. They also pointed out that a GI tract with an imbalance of good and bad bacteria can be made healthier by adjusting the diet to include more prebiotic and probiotic foods (fermented and high-fiber foods) or probiotic supplements. (There are many different types of probiotic supplements on the market. If you feel you need probiotic supplements, check with your healthcare provider to find out which type is best for you.)

At the same time, a study published by researchers at Columbia University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Harvard University in the May 24, 2023, Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that older adults might be able to slow down memory decline by taking a multivitamin/multi-mineral supplement every day. The study followed more than 3,500 adults over the age of 60 for three years who performed online cognitive tests at the end of each test year. At the end of the study, the researchers found that those participants who took daily multivitamin/multi-mineral supplements sustained significantly improved memory skills throughout the three-year study period, especially those participants with underlying cardiovascular issues, compared to those who took placebo supplements. (Again, many different types of multivitamin/multi-mineral supplements are on the market. If you think you need to take one, check with your healthcare provider to find out which type is best for you.)

And while there’s plenty of evidence that exercise, especially aerobic exercise, also helps improve and preserve brain health, a small study published by the University of Maryland in the May 12, 2023 issue of the Journal for Alzheimer’s Disease, found that simply walking four times a week strengthens the connection between networks in the brain associated with the disease in people who have mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and may go on to develop Alzheimer’s. When these networks break down and become disconnected with age, people lose cognitive skills associated with clear thinking and memory.

The researchers set out to see if walking would delay or improve cognitive skills in older adults. After 12 weeks of walking on a treadmill for 30 minutes at moderate intensity four times a week, the 36 study participants, ages 71 to 85, had stronger and more synchronized brain activity. This was demonstrated by their improved ability to recall the details of the story they read prior to exercising. The study showed that both those with intact cognition and those with MCI could benefit from the neuroprotective effects of moderate exercise on brain networks most closely associated with cognition.

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