Use it or lose it: How to maintain brain health

Use it or lose it: Brain training, lots of different exercises akin to IQ tests, can be protective.
Use it or lose it: Brain training, lots of different exercises akin to IQ tests, can be protective.

Approximately one in 10 Australians 65 and over are living with dementia, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. 

An umbrella term for diseases that gradually impair brain function, dementia can affect all the different areas of the brain, Sydney-based Neurologist Dr Ron Granot said.

There are two major types of dementia, the first, Alzheimer’s, “in which there is widespread damage to the [brain’s surface], the cortex,” Dr Granot said. “Under the microscope, [you see] the brain cells accumulating [damaging] plaques and tangles.

“The other major type is vascular dementia, [where] damage to the little blood vessels of the brain leads to small widespread injuries in all regions of the brain. The more we look into it the more we find that the things that [can be done to] reduce vascular dementia tend to reduce all types of dementia.”

Reducing dementia risk

Dr Granot explains that there is a strong link between physical activity and brain health. Strive for a “healthy mind in a healthy body,” Dr Granot said, referring to 30 minutes of daily exercise as non-negotiable.

He referred to a Swedish study that followed 1,462 women for 44 years, where a high level of cardiovascular fitness in middle-age reduced dementia risk by 88 per cent.

Women who were highly fit at middle-age but who still developed dementia did so 11 years later (at age 90) than the women who were moderately fit at middle-age.

Your brain needs to work out too. “Use it or lose it,” Dr Granot said. “Tertiary education is protective [against dementia. Otherwise] brain training, lots of different exercises akin to IQ tests, can be protective.”

Ideally, you should do a variety of activities for your brain to reap the benefits.

Diet-wise, go Mediterranean with meals revolving around vegetables and fruit, fish, chicken, nuts, legumes, and “lots of olive oil. Red meat, added sugar and highly processed food are seen as no-nos.

“Seven to eight hours of quality sleep a night is also important, as is treating sleep apnoea, associated with dementia.” The former means no screen-time once you’re in bed (read a book instead, or invest in a blue light-free Kindle).

And another reason to quit the cigarettes: “Smoking clogs the little blood vessels in brain, [so is linked to] vascular dementia.

Alcohol in large quantities has also shown to increase dementia risk because it’s a nerve toxin.

Dr Granot recommended no more than two standard drinks a day for an adult, with two alcohol free days per week.

“Fear of dementia is very potent, but we know that if you take care of your body, mind and general well-being with good healthy habits in middle-age, it will take care of you in later life.”

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