People worldwide are living longer and reaching older ages more than ever before. Which means more folks are trying to stay fit and healthy for as long as possible. They want to remain in shape into their golden years. They want to stay sharp. They want to take advantage of everything those extra years have to offer.

This is a good problem to have. It’s a sign of our progress as a society. It’s a tribute to advancements in medical care and healthier lifestyles.

Yet with it comes the added challenges that accompany older age – perhaps most of all, the need to focus on not only people’s physical wellbeing, but their brain health as well.

And there’s no shortage of ideas about how to keep minds working on all cylinders no matter how old the individual or patient. Some do crossword puzzles. Some never retire from their day jobs. Some take up second careers. Still others consume a host of vitamins, supplements, and diets intended to preserve brain function.

What’s more, there’s a growing library of literature focused on the connection between exercise and healthier aging. A number of studies demonstrate how regular physical activity is an effective way to stave off a number of functional declines associated with getting older, including issues related to the loss of muscle mass, reduced bone density, worse posture, and slowing cognitive abilities. And many scholars, researchers, and experts agree that older folks with more active lifestyles tend to enjoy better health outcomes, better moods, better emotional states, and better lives overall.

So plenty of data exists telling us how to plan for longer lives without sacrificing our health. But how can we go beyond the conventional wisdom? What trends are emerging to deal with cognitive health and the issues and diseases and conditions associated with it?

Lifestyle Choices Can Protect the Brain

Alzheimer’s disease and dementia are major threats to successful aging, and a steady stream of new information and ideas are coming out of the medical community about how to confront it. In fact, right now, 36 novel Alzheimer’s drugs are being tested in clinical trials; if any of them are successful, we can expect to see new treatments launched in the next five years.

I, for one, am optimistic that we are on the cusp of a breakthrough in this field of research – and that scientific study will soon yield remarkable results for the millions of patients afflicted by this disease, alongside the families and friends who suffer with them.

In the meantime, a number of trends are currently emerging, focused on prevention and lifestyle as a means to protect the brain as people age. At this past year’s Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, experts unveiled a report showing that more than one-third of the planet’s dementia cases may be preventable by mitigating important risk factors like low education, hypertension, diabetes, depression, physical inactivity, smoking, and minimal social contact.

These issues don’t stem from genetics or DNA; they’re lifestyle matters, and most can be altered by changing a person’s choices and behaviors.

One of those choices is, in the simplest terms, to eat better. Recent research indicates that healthier eating habits may preserve brain function and reduce the possibility of dementia. One study of nearly 6,000 older adults showed that anyone who adhered to diets known to improve heart health were more likely to maintain their cognitive abilities as they age.

What’s more, the MIND diet, combining Mediterranean food options with those for individuals with high blood pressure, has been demonstrated to decrease the risk of cognitive impairment compared to those who don’t follow such a diet by as much as 35 percent.  The upshot of this expanding wealth of data is pretty clear and straightforward: take care of your heart, your weight, and your physical health now, and your mind will wind up in better shape down the road.

Looking at 2018 and the years ahead, I am confident that a growing proportion of the population will begin to accept these facts and act on this knowledge – and that more people will alter their lifestyle decisions early on so their brains benefit as they age.

Gary Small

Gary SmallM.D. – Member, Nutrition Advisory Board

Dr. Gary Small is a member of the Nutrition Advisory Board. He is also the chair of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine at Hackensack University and Medical Center and physician-in-chief for Behavioral Health Services at Hackensack Meridian Health. Dr. Small is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, a summa cum laude graduate of UCLA* and an Alpha Omega Alpha graduate of USC Keck School of Medicine. Following medical school, he completed an internship in internal medicine at Children’s Hospital and Adult Medical Center in San Francisco. He also completed a general psychiatry residency at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and a fellowship in geriatric psychiatry at UCLA. He enjoys working out and using SKIN Protective Moisturizer and Liftoff.

*The University of California does not endorse specific products or services as a matter of policy.