This Healthy Habit Can Help Boost Brain Health Later in Life

This will benefit your heart and your head all at once.

We often think of dementia as something that's only a consideration among seniors. Think again, suggests a new 15,000-person study published in March in the journal Neurology. Our habits in our 20s and 30s can play a huge role in our risk for greater cognitive declines later in life as we age.

"These results are striking and suggest that early adulthood may be a critical time for the relationship between these health issues and late-life cognitive skills," study author Kristine Yaffe, M.D., a cognitive aging and dementia researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, says in a press release.

Doing everything possible to reduce risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including obesity, high blood pressure and high blood sugar, of course reduces risk for heart disease. But Yaffe says that this research presents more evidence that healthy lifestyle habits can protect the brain over the lifespan as well.

"It's possible that treating or modifying these health issues in early adulthood could prevent or reduce problems with thinking skills in later life," Yaffe says.

By aggregating data from several studies that followed adults ages 18 to 95 for 10 to 30 years, the scientists were able to track cardiovascular disease risk factors including:

  • Body mass index (aka BMI)
  • Total cholesterol
  • Fasting blood sugar
  • Systolic blood pressure (the top number in a blood pressure reading, which measures the amount of force blood exerts on artery walls with each heartbeat)

Yaffe and team then examined if high readings in any of these four areas in early adulthood, middle age or later life were seen in those who had more noticeable declines in memory and thinking ability late in life. Controlling for other factors like age and education level, they found that three of the four risk factors—obesity, high blood pressure and high blood sugar (not high total cholesterol)—were associated with greater declines in late-life cognition.

The link was strongest when these risk factors popped up in early adulthood, such as the 20s and 30s. Cognitive decline was 80% to 100% greater for young adults who had high blood pressure, high blood sugar or were categorized as obese, compared to those who had "normal" blood pressure, blood sugar and weight.

"With more young people developing diabetes and obesity in early adulthood, along with higher levels of underdiagnosed and undertreated cardiovascular problems, this could have significant public health implications for cognitive health in late life," Yaffe says.

Note that this data doesn't prove cause and effect, just that there was an association. Still, this can inspire future research about a potential connection between dementia and a healthy lifestyle early in life. And there's zero reason not to implement healthy habits now, whether you're 20, 50 or 80—for your brain and your body as a whole. The DASH Diet and other Mediterranean-style eating patterns have been proven to promote a healthy heart and mind, and racking up enough physical activity can also move the needle.

ICYMI, neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta, M.D., just named the five pillars of brain health, which combine all these brain-healthy lessons into one "prescription."

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