Though aging is a natural process that happens over time, there are factors that can speed it up or slow this process down. This process involves the brain aging gradually which results in cognitive functions and processes becoming less flexible. Cognitive processes such as memory, decision making, and learning can require greater effort to perform over time. Recent research shows that there are lifestyle factors that can accelerate the brain’s aging process or slow it down.
In a published report by researchers at the University of California San Diego, four factors were identified and associated with supporting brain health: exercise, diet, sleep, and hearing.
Exercise offers numerous benefits including increasing energy, strengthening the immune system, supporting the flow of oxygen, and reducing health risks. Another under-recognized benefit of exercise is that it can improve brain health. Studies show that exercise can strengthen cognitive functions which helps reduce cognitive decline. The UC San Diego reports references a study that evaluated the impact of exercise on brain health.
This study included 1740 participants, ages 65 and older, whose exercise patterns and brain health was evaluated for over 6 years. Researchers found that participants who exercised 3 or more times per week were 32% less likely to develop dementia compared to participants who exercised less than 3 times per week. This data shows a correlation between exercise and reduced risk of cognitive decline. Experts suggest that exercise improves cognitive processing, episodic memory, and attention which slows brain aging and keeps the brain healthy. Studies have shown that intermittent and regular forms of mild exercise can improve cognitive performance.
Another lifestyle factor that can impact brain health and aging is diet. Extensive research shows that diet can contribute to hearing loss which increases the risk of cognitive decline. A 2019 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology investigated the link between diet, hearing loss, and brain health. This study involved nearly 82,000 participants who had their diet and hearing health evaluated every 4 years for 22 years. Key findings included that the participants who practiced healthier dietary patterns were:
- 25% less likely to develop high frequency hearing loss
- 30% less likely to develop mid-frequency hearing loss
This data shows a significant correlation between diet and hearing loss, a factor that contributes to brain aging. Researchers identified the healthier dietary patterns as similar to the Alternate Mediterranean Diet (AMED) and Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH). These diets focus on increasing plant based foods and decreasing or eliminating processed foods. They integrate more nutrients and minerals that support the body’s many systems and boost brain health.
Sleep is incredibly important for our health and wellness but millions of people do not receive enough. The Sleep Foundation estimates that 50-70 million adults have a sleep disorder, and nearly 35% of adults do not receive adequate sleep per night (7-9 hours for adults). This lack of sleep can affect health in various ways – contributes to irritability, fatigue, prevents concentration etc. But it can also impact brain health by increasing the deposition of beta amyloid. In the UC San Diego report, experts share that these amino acids or plaque deposits are a common characteristic of the brain’s of people with Alzheimer’s. This points to a correlation between cognitive decline and beta amyloid. Experts also reveal that during slow wave sleep, beta amyloid is actually reduced or cleared which highlights the importance of reciting quality sleep.
The fourth factor that can impact the brain aging process is hearing health. Impacting over 48 million people, hearing loss is the third most common health issue people live with today. Hearing loss produces a range of symptoms that can impact brain health. There are specific portions of the brain that are responsible for processing auditory information. Hearing loss results in the brian receiving less auditory input which can impact the brain in a few ways. These areas can shrink because they become less active which changes neural networks and contributes to cognitive decline. Studies have shown that treating hearing loss can improve brain health by strengthening cognitive functions. Hearing aids, the most common treatment, support the brain with processing speech as well as sound. This boosts brain health and reduces the risk of conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia.