The two most important things you can do for your brain

There’s truth in the old adage, “healthy body, healthy mind”.

The lifestyle choices we make when we’re younger can help stave off dementia as we grow old, reveal two studies from a landmark 20-year Melbourne research project.

It turns out the key lies in keeping our cholesterol and blood pressure under control – things we already know are vital for wellness.

Why brain health matters

Dementia is a chronic illness affecting the brain and is the second leading cause of death in Australia (and the leading cause of death for women).

The grim news is, by the time we’re 65, our risk of developing either a stroke or dementia is one in three in men and one in two in women.

Professor Cassandra Szoeke, director of the Healthy Ageing Program at Melbourne University and senior author of the new research, says that changing our behaviours now can help protect our brains in the future.

What the brain studies found

For the first time ever, researchers scanned the live brains of 135 participants over a decade to check exactly what factors impact our brain health.

In the first of the studies, they found the size of our grey matter at 60 can predict how sharp we’ll be at 70, making early prevention possible.

“At the moment dementia is diagnosed too late,” Prof Szoeke says.

“Most studies have concentrated on those over 70 because that’s when decline commonly occurs.

“By looking at people over time we could see there are already differences in cognitive performance several decades earlier, which means we can target the risk factors.”

Two significant risk factors

The second of the two studies found there are two things in particular we need to watch out for – high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

While the importance of a healthy lifestyle to look after our physical health is already well known, Prof Szoeke says it also protects our grey matter.

“This Australian study showed the exposure of vascular risk over 20 years actually affected the tissue of the brain, with more damage apparent in our scans,” she says.

“The brain is the control and command centre for the body, and the organ which houses the very essence of who you are – you don’t want to damage it.”

What you can do to keep your brain healthy

A healthy diet, physical activity, keeping the brain active, and avoiding smoking and excess alcohol are all ways we can keep our risk factors in check and help prevent the onset of dementia.

“We’re talking about prevention and that’s really important because at the moment we don’t really have a cure,” Prof Szoeke says.

“The best looking brains were those of people whose cholesterol and blood pressure remained in the healthy range across 20 years – so keep yours in check.”

Brain Awareness Week 2019 is from March 11-18. The Women’s Healthy Ageing Project is expanding research to include everyone in Australia through its Healthy Brain Initiative.

Written by Liz McGrath.