You’ve probably heard how a smoker’s lungs are 20 years older than they should be. Chest x-rays and lung function tests tell the sad story. But what about brain age? While avoiding cigarettes may slow down the aging of your lungs, is there anything you can do to slow down the aging of your brain.
Neurologist Alessandro Biffi, MD, director of the Aging and Brain Health Research Group at Massachusetts General Hospital, says that you have more control over your brain age than you realize. “There are a number of modifiable factors that people can address to help slow brain aging,” he says. “One of them is diet. You need a healthy diet to provide needed nutrients to help protect the brain from damage. You also need to avoid potentially harmful eating patterns, such as consuming too much sugar or saturated and trans fats.”
Measuring Brain Age
A healthy lifestyle is certainly critical in avoiding rapid brain aging. And now work is underway in developing a test that can help identify whether your brain age matches your chronological age.
Earlier this year, researchers published a study that looked at how changes in brain volume could help predict a person’s brain age. That information may also be helpful in identifying people who are at higher risk for mental and physical health problems, and possibly early death.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
- Challenge your brain with something new every day, even if it’s just a new chapter in a book or a new crossword puzzle.
- Get a cardio workout every day. You don’t need to wear yourself out, but get plenty of oxygenated blood pumping to your brain. A brisk walk, a bike ride, a good swim, or a dance are all good options.
- Work with your doctor to manage any medical conditions you have, such as hearing or vision loss, hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, and any problems that keep you from exercising or being socially engaged.
As you get older your brain volume shrinks—about 5 percent per decade starting at around age 40. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of the brain can reveal those telltale changes in brain volume. In the study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, researchers combined MRI scans of brain tissue volume with computer algorithms to predict a person’s brain age.
The greater the difference between a person’s brain age and their actual age, the higher their risk for experiencing health problems and early cognitive decline. Further research is needed before this kind of testing can be used on a widespread clinical basis. But, researchers are hopeful that by identifying brain age discrepancies earlier, interventions can also begin sooner to help people at higher risk for mental and physical challenges ahead.
“This is interesting and important research,” Dr. Biffi says. “It takes the observations we’ve made in clinical practice to a new level. Certain people have brains that, on scans, appear completely different than their chronological age. We have had the suspicion it was related to neurological and physical health, and this study confirms that it is associated with a number of age-related processes.”
Among the common age-related processes that affect brain volume are the loss of gray matter and white matter, the loss of neural circuits, changes in hormones and chemical neurotransmitters, and changes in how certain genes behave.
How You Can Help Yourself
In the meantime, as Dr. Biffi notes, you can do plenty to help preserve your brain health. To give your brain the best chance at a long and healthy life, Dr. Biffi suggests you:
Get Enough Sleep: A healthy night’s sleep is one of the most underappreciated factors for good physical health and for robust brain function in particular. “Sleep is critical for mental alertness and the promotion of processes like basic housekeeping in the brain that removes toxic proteins,” Dr. Biffi says. “Older adults need at least eight hours of good quality sleep with appropriate sleep architecture.” Sleep architecture refers to spending an appropriate amount of time in each stage of sleep.
Limit the Libations: The potential health benefits of a daily glass of wine or other alcoholic drink remain a somewhat controversial topic. One thing is clear: Excessive alcohol consumption is bad for the brain, as well as the liver, the heart and the rest of the body. If you drink, limit consumption to two drinks per day if you’re a man, and one drink if you’re a woman.
Stay Connected: Think about the people you know who are the most engaged with others. Maybe it’s their own big family. Maybe it’s a network of friends and associates that keeps them busy. Maybe you’re someone like that, who doesn’t have enough days in the month for all the lunch dates, golf outings, dinner invitations, family reunions and other social gatherings to which you are invited. If so, don’t hesitate to keep your calendar filled. Social interaction is one of the healthiest things you can do for your brain. If you need to build a network, join a club or volunteer.
Challenge Your Brain: “Engaging in intellectual activities to stimulate the brain is important at any age,” Dr. Biffi says. These activities can include:
- Challenging crossword puzzles
- Learning a new language, hobby or musical instrument
- Reading books and articles about complicated subjects
- Traveling to new places
- Joining discussion groups
- Taking a class on history, literature or science
The key is to force your brain to learn something new or to focus on a subject that requires you to think differently about it.
Stay Physically Healthy: Obviously, aging can bring with it physical health concerns, too. These can greatly affect your emotional and cognitive health, too. Exercising daily, eating a healthy diet, and not smoking are critical. “Do what you can to manage health conditions, such as high blood pressure, vascular disease, inflammation, obesity, diabetes, and thyroid dysfunction,” Dr. Biffi says. “Treat any problems you have with hearing and vision, and avoid head injury.”
Aside from a loss of brain tissue volume, your brain is vulnerable to many other age-related changes. A loss of cells in the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for long-term memory), the accumulation of plaques and tangles (hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease), and a decline in certain hormones are all associated with aging. But if you can maintain a healthy lifestyle and a positive mental outlook, you may be able to avoid or at least delay those forces that would age your brain ahead of its time. Think young, act young, and remember that your brain doesn’t necessarily have to age any faster than the rest of you.