“Grey” Matters, Men! Boost Your Brain Health at Any Age
June 14-20 is National Men’s Health Week[i]. This “special awareness period recognized by Congress and the President” was established in 1994 and is celebrated the week leading up to and including Father’s Day, which this year falls on June 20.
As a woman, encouraging the men I care about to take care of themselves is a big part of keeping them healthy and happy for a long time! Men’s Health Week offers healthcare providers, public policy makers, and others an opportunity to encourage men to get regular medical advice and early treatment for preventable health problems.
On the topic of preventable health problems, I simply cannot write about men’s health without briefly discussing the leading preventable health problem in men, which is heart disease. In 2019, heart disease was responsible for about 1 in every 4 deaths in men in the United States. And it remains the leading cause of death for men of most racial and ethnic groups (African Americans, Native Americans or Alaska Natives, and Hispanics) [ii].
News Flash: A Healthy Brain Depends on a Healthy Heart
If there is any good news about this, it’s that heart disease is preventable—even reversible—with diet and lifestyle changes, as I’ve discussed in many previous blogs. This brings me to the main topic of this blog: brain health. Did you know that the health of your heart can also affect the health of your brain?
Your heart pumps blood through vessels to every part of your body, including your brain. Therefore, keeping your heart healthy also lowers your risk for brain trauma such as stroke, which I addressed last month. A stroke is a “brain attack” that happens when a clot or a plaque blocks a blood vessel in the brain or when a brain blood vessel bursts, killing brain tissue. When this happens, there can be memory loss and permanent disability.
Brain health is a concern of most men as they age—and June also happens to be Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month[iii]. So, the remainder of this blog will discuss diet and lifestyle factors that can help men maintain a healthy brain. But before I do that, let’s clarify a bit of terminology.
Dementia vs. Alzheimer’s Disease: What's the Difference?
Dementia is a general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for 60-90% of cases. Alzheimer’s is a specific disease. Dementia is not disease. But here is the important point: Dementia is not a normal part of aging. It is caused by damage to brain cells that affects a person’s ability to communicate, which can affect thinking, behavior, and feelings. In fact, dementia is reversible.
6 Steps to a Healthy Brain
The Centers for Disease Control has outlined several ways you can keep your brain healthy[iv], including:
- Controlling your blood pressure. Science now tells us that having uncontrolled high blood pressure in midlife not only bodes badly for heart health down the line, it also raises your risk for dementia later in life.
- Controlling your high blood sugar. High blood sugar can damage blood vessels and nerves in the brain, raising the risk for stroke and dementia.
- Stop smoking. Smokers experience faster cognitive decline than nonsmokers. This is even more serious for men, according to a 2012 study that examined the cognitive data of more than 7,000 men and women over a 12-year period. The researchers found that middle-aged male smokers experienced more rapid cognitive decline than nonsmokers or female smokers. Smokers also have an increased risk of dementia. A 2015 research review of 37 studies comparing smokers and nonsmokers found that smokers were 30 percent more likely to develop dementia. The study also found that quitting smoking decreases the risk of dementia to that of a nonsmoker.
Limit alcohol. If you drink alcohol do so in moderation. What does “moderation” mean? For men, according to the CDC Guidelines for alcohol[v], it means no more than 2 daily servings of:
- 12 oz. beer (5% alcohol)
- 8 oz. malt liquor (7% alcohol)
- 1.5 oz. (a “shot”) 80-proof (40% alcohol) distilled spirits/liquor
- 5 oz. wine (12% alcohol)
Drinking too much alcohol raises blood pressure, which can lead to stroke. I have a personal bias in this area, but it’s science-based. If you choose to consume alcohol, choose red wine. It's healthier! Why? Because it contains polyphenols (including grape seed extract and resveratrol) that have been shown to improve vascular health. A 2021 review of 37 human studies showed consumption of red wine polyphenols led to significant improvements in systolic blood pressure and vascular function. Further, resveratrol is an antioxidant and can reduce inflammation in the brain. Finally, resveratrol activates Sirtuins, a family of genes that play an essential role in the prevention of brain disorders.
- Eat healthy. You already know what I’m going to recommend about this: Consume a Mediterranean Diet! Numerous clinical studies support the cognitive benefits of eating a Mediterranean Diet, including reducing the risk of dementia. One of the reasons is that olive oil is the principal source of fat in the Mediterranean Diet. And olive oil is loaded with polyphenols that can minimize inflammation in the brain. Butter simply doesn’t do that!
- Exercise. Just do it! And it is never too late!!
I’m putting exercise at the end of this blog (leaving the best 'til last) because I am more convinced than ever that exercise is the key—not only to brain health—but to overall health, particularly as we age! And the science supports it, particularly with regard to Alzheimer’s Disease, the most common form of dementia.
Exercise has been my passion for more than 40 years. My master’s thesis research at The Pennsylvania State University, showed that exercise reversed atherosclerosis caused by a high fat diet. Although my research was conducted in rats, and looked at cardiovascular health, overwhelming science now confirms that exercise can alleviate the negative impact of aging on the brain. One of the first major studies to show this was a 2011 study involving 33,816 people followed for up to 12 years. Participants who performed a high level of physical activity had almost 40% less cognitive decline. But further analysis showed that even low-to-moderate exercise reduced cognitive impairment by 35%.
In honor of Father’s Day and Men’s Health Week, please share this information with the men you care about.