Aging is a natural process that occurs over time and impacts the entire body including the brain. When the brain ages, cognitive processes become less flexible and are slowed down. Cognitive functions like decision making, learning, memory, completing daily tasks etc. may require more time or become impaired. Though aging is inevitable, recent research shows that there are modifiable lifestyle factors that can contribute to accelerating or decelerating brain aging.
Researchers from the University of California San Diego recently published a report that identified four factors that support brain health: exercise, diet, sleep, and hearing. Researchers suggest that these are significant factors that impact brain aging.
We know that exercise offers numerous health benefits. From boosting energy, to supporting one’s immune system, and supporting blood flow; exercise improves overall health. Another benefit of exercise that you may not know is its impact on brain health. Research shows that exercise also has a positive effect on the brain. The report by UC San Diego includes findings from a study that highlighted how exercise benefits the brain.
This study included 1740 participants, 65 and older, whose exercise patterns and brain health was evaluated for over 6 years. Researchers found that the people who exercised 3 or more times every week were 32% less likely to develop dementia compared to participants who exercised less than 3 times per week. This shows that people who exercise were significantly less likely to experience cognitive decline. Experts suggest that exercise improves episodic memory, attention, and cognitive processing. Both intermittent and consistent forms of mild exercise have been shown to improve cognitive performance.
Healthy dietary patterns can improve brain health by decreasing the risk of developing hearing loss which is correlated to cognitive decline. Hearing loss can contribute to cognitive decline by weakening specific areas of the brain that manage processing auditory information. Extensive research shows a link between diet and hearing health. A major 2019 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology investigated the correlation between diet and hearing loss. Researchers did this by evaluating the hearing capacities and dietary patterns of nearly 82,000 participants. People had their diet and hearing health evaluated every 4 years for 22 years. Researchers found that the participants who practiced healthier ways of eating were:
- 25% less likely to develop high frequency hearing loss
- 30% less likely to develop mid-frequency hearing loss
Researchers found that the healthy dietary patterns these participants were practicing closely aligned with recognized and often recommended diets: the Alternate Mediterranean Diet (AMED) and Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH). These diets share similar practices which include eating plant based foods, high intake of vegetables and fruits, integrating whole grains, eliminating processed foods, and having meat as well as alcohol in moderation. Healthier dietary patterns reduce risk of developing health conditions like hearing loss and cognitive decline. They support blood and oxygen flow, healthy immune system, bone health etc.
Many people do not receive adequate sleep. In fact, the Sleep Foundation estimates that 50-70 million adults have a sleep disorder and that nearly 35% of adults do not receive the amount of sleep they should (7 – 9 hours per night). You have likely experienced the impact of lack of sleep or quality sleep – fatigue, irritability, less energy, inability to focus and easily complete tasks etc. But in addition to these symptoms, a lack of sleep can also impact brain health. As outlined in UC San Diego’s report, sleep deprivation increases the deposition of beta amyloid. Beta amyloid are amino acids or plaque deposits that are a key characteristic among the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. This highlights that beta amyloid is a feature of cognitive decline. Researchers explain that during slow wave sleep which is achieved through receiving adequate sleep, beta amyloid is cleared. This reveals the importance of sleep to help maintain brain health.
Impacting over 48 million people, hearing loss is one of the most common medical conditions people live with today. Extensive research shows the impact hearing loss can have on the brain. Studies show that hearing loss increases the risk of cognitive decline and the development of associated conditions like Alzheimer’s. Hearing loss can take a toll on cognitive functions by shrinking areas related to processing auditory information, contributing to cognitive overload, and less stimulation to the brain due to social withdrawal. These effects can lead to reduced cognitive functioning which contributes to decline.
These findings highlight the importance of exercise, diet, sleep, and hearing in maintaining brain health.