How women can boost their brain health and delay cognitive decline
Women are twice as likely as men to develop certain types of brain tumours and suffer from depression. Nearly two-thirds of patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease are women, with a staggering one in five women likely to expect a diagnosis by the age of 65. And, when it comes to headaches, women are three times more likely to reach for the paracetamol than their male counterparts.
If one thing is clear, it’s that women are at a greater risk of experiencing mental health conditions and cognitive decline.
Since prevention is better than a cure; if you’re a woman who cares about the state of your cognitive health and would love a reduced risk of cognitive decline, maintaining a healthy brain could be as simple as implementing certain lifestyle habits into your daily life.
7 Ways to support brain health for women
Get the body moving
One of the first rules of a healthy life is to exercise regularly. There’s strong evidence to suggest that exercise helps to grow new brain cells, increase the number of brain connections, and create more nerve cells, with women who are physically active being less likely to experience a decline in their mental function.
Studies have also shown that exercise can increase the size of the hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for memory – which could explain why exercise is one of the most effective ways to prevent Alzheimer’s disease (a brain disorder that causes memory loss). Active women younger than 65 have a 30% lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease compared to those who maintain a more sedentary lifestyle.
On top of these benefits, when paired with a healthy diet, regular physical activity can cause a decrease a high blood pressure into a healthier range, which is a massive win for women against cognitive decline.
How much exercise should you aim for to reduce the risk of cognitive impairment?
To gain maximum cognitive function benefits from physical activity, daily exercise is recommended in the form of 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate intensity physical activity (brisk walking or swimming), or 1.25 to 2.5 hours of vigorous physical activity (jogging or aerobics), plus strength training for at least two days per week to help increase blood flow to the brain.
Learn ways to manage stress
Recent research involving the analysis of nearly one thousand brain scans discovered a link between chronic stress and high levels of the stress hormone cortisol leading to a higher risk of brain shrinkage and impaired memories, effectively in middle-aged adults, with effects more severe in women than men.
This increased risk of cognitive impairment is likely due to the number of stressful life events experienced by women during the mid-life stage, such as menopause. Learning stress management or stress reduction techniques may help to prevent cognitive decline in women.
What are some ways to manage stress for better brain health?
Common ways to manage stress as the brain changes with age, include:
Learning mindfulness techniques
Planning out your day
Setting a good morning routine
Asking for help when you need it
Speaking with a therapist
Finding time to relax every day (whether that involves watching your favourite TV program, indulging in a block of dark chocolate, or spending half an hour doing a jigsaw puzzle)
Don’t ignore brain fog
You may be familiar with the experience of brain fog. While not officially labelled as a medical condition, brain fog is the casual expression used to describe the feeling of being mentally sluggish, cloudy, or fatigued. Brain fog can cause feelings of forgetfulness, disorganisation, or complete distraction to the point where managing simple everyday tasks becomes difficult, and somewhat unachievable.
Many women live to expect the occurrence of brain fog as a normal part of life. But, the thing with brain fog is that it could be a cue that your brain is experiencing hormonal changes, particularly if you are going through perimenopause or menopause.
Neurological symptoms, such as brain fog, mood swings, and sleep apnea, are a common complaint amongst women transitioning through menopause, suggesting that hormonal changes related to menopause may be responsible for a heightened risk of cognitive decline during this period.
To maintain a healthy brain, consult with your doctor in regards to persistent brain fog, especially if you suspect menopause, as you may be a candidate for hormone replacement therapy (HRT).
Sleep to restore brain cells
Poor or disrupted sleep can cause mental decline in concentration and memory function, and studies show that women have a harder time falling asleep than men. As women age, it’s important to include additional repair and recovery time. The best time for that to happen is during sleep.
Some scientific theories also suggest that sleep helps to clear abnormal proteins in the brain and consolidate memories, which improves memory and overall health.
How much sleep is enough sleep for women?
It’s recommended that the average adult gets 7 to 9 consecutive hours of sleep each night (not fragmented sleep) to gain optimal health and brain benefits.
To achieve the right amount of sleep:
Establish a relaxing bedtime routine
Avoid watching too much television or using technology before bed
Regulate your circadian rhythm and eliminate bright lights before bed
Skip day time naps if possible
Cut off caffeine consumption in the afternoons
Try natural sleep supplements, like melatonin
Maintain social interaction
Brain atrophy – also known as cerebral atrophy – is the loss of neurons, and connections between neurons. Brain atrophy can be caused by many different diseases that affect the brain, including Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. As a person ages, it’s natural to gradually lose brain cells, however brain atrophy occurs more rapidly than normal.
Why are we telling you about brain atrophy? Well, there is research that links solitary confinement with brain atrophy. Remaining socially active may have an opposing effect of helping to prevent future cell loss and strengthening brain health, thus decreasing the risk of cognitive decline in women.
If you’ve ever needed a reason to catch up with your friends, decreasing your risk of cognitive decline has to be it!
Eat a healthy diet
People living around the Mediterranean Sea do a lot of things right, but their diet has to sit at the top of the list. Abundant in vegetables, herbs, fruits, healthy fats (e.g. olive oil), fish, nuts, beans, and whole grains, the Mediterranean diet is well-known for supporting weight management, a healthy heart, and brain function.
Some research even found that the brains of 50-year-old women who followed the Mediterranean diet appeared five years younger than those of same-aged women who favoured a typical Western-styled diet. So, if you’re searching for a science-backed diet to keep your brain healthy, stock your kitchen with ingredients on par with the glorious Mediterranean diet.
Meditate to keep your brain healthy
Meditation is an ancient practice that has the potential to provide instant benefits of relaxation and brain health, including the possibility of preserving cognition and preventing dementia.
Studies show that meditation may affect multiple pathways that could play a role in brain ageing and mental health. For example, meditation may reduce stress-induced cortisol secretion and provide a neuroprotective effect by elevating levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) – a substance in your brain that helps to maintain the life of your brain cells, and grow new cells.
Further, meditation may potentially strengthen neuronal circuits and enhance cognitive reserve capacity. According to Harvard Health Publishing, “You can think of cognitive reserve as your brain’s ability to improvise and find alternate ways of getting a job done”.
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