Healthy lifestyles may impact brain function later in life

Recently I wrote about healthy living as a means of reducing the risk of developing chronic disease as well as being a possible way of protecting against Alzheimer’s disease

A study based on a UK population (1) has added further evidence for the effect that diet and lifestyle can have on mental/brain (cognitive) function.   The researchers were looking at the health behaviours of over 5000 men and women who were civil service office workers in London UK.  They assessed the health of the workers over a period of about 17 years when the workers were at three different stages of life: early midlife, around 44 years old, midlife, around 56 years old and late-midlife, when they were around 61 years old.  A score, of 0 to 4, was given for the number of unhealthy behaviours the individuals participated in.  Smoking, low physical activity and low fruit and vegetables consumption were among the unhealthy behaviours being assessed.  Poor thinking skills (known as executive function) and poor memory in late-midlife were the outcomes being measured and analysed.

Compared with those who had no unhealthy behaviours, those with 3–4 unhealthy behaviours over the study period were nearly three times more likely to have poorer thinking skills. A similar association was observed for memory – the men and women who had the most number of unhealthy behaviours were about twice as likely to have declining memory.  The risk of poor thinking skills and poor memory was greater the more times the participants reported unhealthy behaviours over the 3 age phases that were assessed (1).  

Current smokers were more likely to show the lowest memory, verbal, and math-related thinking and reasoning skills at each age that was assessed.  Similar findings were also noted among those who ate fewer versus more than 2 servings of fruits and vegetables each day.   Men and women who reported lower levels of physical activity during midlife and late-midlife also showed greater risk for cognitive deficit (1).

The authors conclude (1) that “This study suggests that both the number of unhealthy behaviours and their duration are associated with subsequent cognitive function in later life.”

The research only shows associations, it’s not a study that proves that healthy living can prevent mental decline but it indicates that people who live healthily over many years tend to be less likely to experience mental decline in later life.  The exciting point about this research is that all of these unhealthy behaviours can be modified.  At any age we can make the choice to be a little healthier.  With a bit of planning we can add some physical activities into the day – whether that be walking for an extra 15-30minutes a day, taking the stairs instead of the lift or doing a weekly exercise or dance class.  It is also possible to look at the diet and see if there is a way to add extra portions of vegetables and fruits into our daily meals for example adding a piece of fruit to our breakfast, eating fruit as a snack, having a large mixed salad with lunch and including at least two portions of vegetables with our evening meal.  Reaching the minimum 5 portions a day needn’t be too challenging.  Making changes gradually can help the process seem less overwhelming and it all adds up to make a difference in the long-run. 

As I have previously mentioned, nutritional supplements can never be viewed as an alternative to healthy eating and living.  However, if you feel your diet consistently falls short of vegetables and fruits you may wish to consider taking a food-state multi-vitamin and mineral supplement which tends to provide bioflavonoids in addition to the nutrients and is easy for the body to absorb.  For those of you who do not eat oil fish regularly (at least twice per week) you may want to consider taking a daily fish oil supplement in order to provide omega 3 fatty acids to the body (a supplement to provide around 250-350mg of EPA and 250-350mg DHA).  For vegetarians and vegans flaxseed oil can provide the shorter chain omega 3 fatty acid, alpha linolenic acid, (a supplement providing 1000mg alpha-linolenic acid daily can be considered).  Vegetarian EPA and DHA supplements produced from algae are also becoming increasingly available.

(1) Séverine Sabia S et al.  2009.  Health Behaviors From Early to Late Midlife as Predictors of Cognitive Function.  The Whitehall II Study.   American Journal of Epidemiology.  170(4):428-437
Written by Ani Kowal