Are there any signs to look out for?
Signs that our brain isn't at its peak health might include forgetfulness, poor concentration, difficulty performing tasks, low mood, anxiety, fatigue and poor sleep. Many people have episodes when their brain health is struggling. This may be due to stress, lack of sleep, and mental or physical illness, for example.
Are conditions like dementia hereditary?
The vast majority of dementia cases are not directly inherited. Those that are hereditary are quite rare and these include 'young-onset familial Alzheimers' (affecting people in their 30s and 40s), some types of 'frontotemporal dementia', and rare genetic diseases like Huntingtons.
The commonest types of dementia are only loosely genetic, with family members having no more than a slightly increased risk of inheriting the condition. Fortunately, there are steps people can take to reduce their individual risk: if there is a family history of dementia, it makes sense to improve the odds by maintaining a healthy weight, being active, avoiding smoking, and eating a healthy diet.
How much do alcohol, sleep and stress affect our brain health?
Alcohol is a direct poison of brain tissue and drinking excessive amounts can damage the brain. NHS guidelines recommend no more than 14 units of alcohol per week. Inadequate sleep has been shown in studies to damage the brain too, and lead to cognitive impairment. Chronic stress has been shown to increase the level of cortisol, which in turn damages cells in the 'hippocampus' of the brain. This can lead to cognitive deficit and mood disorders.
And what about screen time?
The evidence on screen time is conflicting. Some studies suggest that children exposed to high levels of screen time have a thinner cortex and a higher risk of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). However, this doesn't necessarily indicate cause. It may be that children who are less intelligent would rather spend their time on screens, instead of other activities. In addition, light from the screens may interfere with sleep.
Does eating a healthy diet help?
Nutrition is vitally important for brain health. For example, omega-3 fatty acids (found in oily fish such as mackerel), play an important role in brain function and development, as they are used to build cell membranes in the nervous system. Some studies suggest that taking omega-3 in pregnancy may reduce the risk of the baby developing ADHD and boost intelligence.
Antioxidants i.e. vitamins, help reduce oxidative damage to brain cells and reduce inflammation, helping slow ageing of the brain. A healthy diet also reduces the risk of obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and fatty liver, all of which are linked with vascular dementia, strokes and heart disease.
What's your take on food supplements?
The best way to provide all the nutrients we need is to eat a well-balanced diet containing oily fish, salads and vegetables. However, if you have any reason to think that your diet may not contain healthy levels of omega-3 or vitamins, then taking a supplement may be helpful. This is true for everyone, whether worried about physical health, brain health or just wanting to stay fit and healthy.
Is there actually evidence that brain-training exercises help?
While brain training exercises, such as crosswords and sudoku, may improve mental speed and thinking skills, there isn't firm evidence that they significantly reduce the risk of dementia.
Dr Clare’s steps for maintaining a healthy brain:
For a quick boost to our brain health, it helps to take a moment to relax. Try going for a walk, chatting to a friend or listening to music. Some people find meditation or yoga helpful.
In the long-term, it’s important to lead a physically healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise, healthy diet, healthy habits and adequate sleep.
There is evidence that social factors, such as meaningful relationships, social stimulation, and being integrated in society, are linked with retaining a good memory in old age. This may be as much about leading a healthy lifestyle and remaining physically active, as a direct effect on the brain.
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