Mind Over Matter: A Woman’s Guide To Staying Brain-Healthy

By Amanda Jerome

As the baby boomer genera­tion moves into retire­ment age and beyond, brain health issues re­lated to aging are rapidly becoming a major concern. Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and stroke top the list of critical issues that women and their families are considering.

Brain-aging diseases are a seri­ous concern for many; the physical, emotional, and financial toll these illnesses can take can make once-in­dependent individuals rely on their families and the medical system for even the most basic care. This is an especially relevant concern for wom­en, as 70 percent of new Alzheimer’s patients are female. And yet, despite the overwhelming impact of brain diseases on women, participants in medical research studies related to brain-aging diseases are generally male.1

In 2013 Lynn Posluns founded the Women’s Brain Health Initiative to combat this disparity and advance research and education related to women’s brain diseases. “I founded the Women’s Brain Health Initiative to level the research playing field, to fund the female side of the studies, and to ensure that researchers were taking sex and gender into account when looking at diseases that affect the brain as one ages,” says Posluns.

While decline in cognitive func­tion can be a frightening prospect, Posluns says that there is good news: research has found that proactive choices we make every day about our health and well-being can help maintain and promote brain health, whether or not you are genetically susceptible to dementia. “It’s important to know what lifestyle factors can influence your brain health as you get older,” Posluns says.

Posluns likes to break down the five most significant steps women can take to help promote brain health with an easy-to-remember acronym: MENS (and, yes, she rec­ognizes the irony in the acronym, when appealing to women).

M = Mental Stimulation

Exercise your brain like it is a muscle. Mental stimulation improves brain plasticity and neural connections, so if one part of the brain starts to deteriorate, other parts take over. And don’t worry that you need to be solving complex equations; mental stimulation can be simple activities, like brushing your teeth with your left hand if you are right-handed.

E = Exercise

Exercise increases the size of the hippocampus (where memories are stored) and helps oxygen flow to the brain.

N = Nutrition

Diet affects brain function. The Mediterranean diet specifically— fruits, vegetables, fish (omega-3s), nuts, olive oil, and whole grainshas been found to be beneficial. Coffee and dark chocolate are also good for brain health, as is red wine (a glass, not a bottle!).

S = Social Engagement

Staying socially active reduces stress and depression (both of which can lead to dementia) and helps with mental stimulation. Do what you love with the people you love.

“I also like to add an extra S for sleep,” Posluns says. “More research is proving the benefit of sleep for brain health. It helps eliminate tox­ins from the brain and allows memo­ries to be consolidated.”

For additional information about pre­vention and risks associated with brain aging as well as ways to get involved, visit the Women’s Brain Health Initia­tive website at wbhi.org. 

Reference

  1. Harrar S. Of mice and women: Testing lab ani­mals to understand our health. Women’s Brain Health Initiative website. Available at: http://wom­ensbrainhealth.org/think-twice/of-mice-and-wom­en-testing-lab-animals-to-understand-our-health. Accessed January 4, 2015.