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7 Simple Steps to Boost Women’s Brain Health

   

Want to help protect your brain? Research has found that small lifestyle changes can have a big impact on brain health, whether you’re sleeping soundly or socializing with friends. Here are seven steps that women can take to help keep their minds strong.

1. Take a few deep breaths

Women are more likely to feel stressed than men, according to the American Psychological Association, and higher cortisol levels have been associated with lower brain volumes and impaired memory, especially in females, a 2018 study found. To combat the effects of stress, Jessica Caldwell, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, suggests taking deep breaths. “Using breath to meditate is the easiest tool we have to control stress and anxiety,” she says. “Research shows even a few minutes a day lowers stress, inflammation and depression — and improves memory and mood.” To relax quickly, Caldwell suggests “evenly matching the length of your inhale to your exhale.” You can also try short meditation via the Headspace or Calm apps.

2. Go for a walk

“Exercise gets your heart in shape so that it’s more efficient in pumping oxygen and nutrients to brain cells,” says Gary Small, a geriatric psychiatrist and the director of UCLA’s Longevity Center, as well as author of The Small Guide to Alzheimer’s Disease. It also helps your body to produce brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein produced in the brain’s cortex that stimulates neurons. And you don't have to be a triathlete to reap the benefits, Small says. Any kind of aerobic activity will do. “One study found that a 20-minute brisk walk three times a week lowers your risk of Alzheimer’s disease now,” he says. Walking twice a week for six months also “significantly increased hippocampal volume” in older women with mild cognitive impairment, a Canadian Institutes of Health Research study revealed. So how long should you exercise? Alan Snow, a brain-aging expert and founder and CEO of Cognitive Clarity, recommends exercising for 30 minutes a day, four to five times a week. “It will help your immune system and it helps your brain as well,” he says.

3. Schedule an annual exam

“Many medical conditions have been associated with memory decline and Alzheimer’s disease,” says Lisa Mosconi, director of the Women's Brain Initiative and associate director of the Alzheimer's Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College. Examples include cardiovascular disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, high cholesterol levels and diabetes. A 2020 report from AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) concluded that “keeping your heart and blood vessels healthy, likely reduces your risk for cognitive decline and dementia.” Other issues — such as hormonal health, thyroid function and metabolic health — can also affect the brain. Depression affects more females than males and is linked to a significant risk of dementia, research shows. But many of these conditions can be managed by appropriate medical care and scheduling annual exams. For women over 40, the exam should include a full lipid and metabolic panel, which can help to identify a variety of conditions.

4. Try something new

Learning new things can keep brain cells working at optimum levels and may even limit memory decline, a University of California, Irvine study found. “Intellectual activity and mental stimulation is to the brain what exercise is to your muscles,” says Mosconi, author of The XX Brain: The Groundbreaking Science Empowering Women to Maximize Cognitive Heath and Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease. Try varying everyday activities. If you like movies, periodically trade an action flick for something educational, like a documentary or a TED Talk, she recommends. If you like playing chess, challenge your brain to learn a new game such as bridge. If you like to read, put down your novel for a day and read a self-help book. “Try a book about a topic that you really want to learn more about, whether it’s cooking or business or astronomy. You’ll learn something that’s going to stay with you. And that’s going to make a difference for your brain.”

5. Stick to a consistent bedtime

Research suggests that females are more likely to have a harder time getting adequate sleep than males. This is partially due to hormonal changes that women experience via menopause, stress and other health conditions. One of the best ways to improve your sleep, according to Mosconi, is to put down your devices “at least 45 minutes to an hour” before bedtime, as blue light can impact melatonin, which regulates the sleep-wake cycle. She also recommends training yourself to go to bed and to wake at the same time every day, which has been shown to have numerous benefits. And sleep, Mosconi says, “is really important for brain health because it’s the only chance that the brain has to really take care of itself.” So while you are sleeping, your brain is getting rid of waste products, toxins and plaques.

6. Phone a friend

Women report being more fulfilled by social interactions — and rewarded by the oxytocin hormone that’s released during them — than men do. And some research has found that senior women who enjoy a large social network had a 26 percent lower risk of dementia. So picking up the phone to call a loved one or making plans with a friend will not only brighten your mood, but it can also benefit your brain. Don’t have a lot of free time? One study found that 10 minutes of social interaction was enough to boost cognitive performance.

7. Follow a Mediterranean diet plan

Researchers at UCLA discovered that people who eat a Mediterranean diet — which is rich in fruits and vegetables, fish, nuts and olive oil — had lower levels of beta-amyloid plaque and less tangles of tau protein, which are hallmark pathologies of an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. And a Mayo Clinic study found that those on a Mediterranean plan had more thickness in brain areas associated with memory. Mosconi’s research has found similar results. “Using brain scans, we showed that the brain of a typical middle-aged woman on a Mediterranean diet looks five years younger than that of a woman who’s the same age but follows a Western diet,” Mosconi says. Scientists say there isn’t enough evidence to prove that the Mediterranean diet will help prevent Alzheimer’s, but it’s clearly a heart-healthy diet, and there is ample evidence that what’s good for the heart is good for the brain, according to AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health. —Nicole Pajer

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Membership Expires: Renew

   

Want to help protect your brain? Research has found that small lifestyle changes can have a big impact on brain health, whether you’re sleeping soundly or socializing with friends. Here are seven steps that women can take to help keep their minds strong.

1. Take a few deep breaths

Women are more likely to feel stressed than men, according to the American Psychological Association, and higher cortisol levels have been associated with lower brain volumes and impaired memory, especially in females, a 2018 study found. To combat the effects of stress, Jessica Caldwell, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, suggests taking deep breaths. “Using breath to meditate is the easiest tool we have to control stress and anxiety,” she says. “Research shows even a few minutes a day lowers stress, inflammation and depression — and improves memory and mood.” To relax quickly, Caldwell suggests “evenly matching the length of your inhale to your exhale.” You can also try short meditation via the Headspace or Calm apps.

2. Go for a walk

“Exercise gets your heart in shape so that it’s more efficient in pumping oxygen and nutrients to brain cells,” says Gary Small, a geriatric psychiatrist and the director of UCLA’s Longevity Center, as well as author of The Small Guide to Alzheimer’s Disease. It also helps your body to produce brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein produced in the brain’s cortex that stimulates neurons. And you don't have to be a triathlete to reap the benefits, Small says. Any kind of aerobic activity will do. “One study found that a 20-minute brisk walk three times a week lowers your risk of Alzheimer’s disease now,” he says. Walking twice a week for six months also “significantly increased hippocampal volume” in older women with mild cognitive impairment, a Canadian Institutes of Health Research study revealed. So how long should you exercise? Alan Snow, a brain-aging expert and founder and CEO of Cognitive Clarity, recommends exercising for 30 minutes a day, four to five times a week. “It will help your immune system and it helps your brain as well,” he says.

3. Schedule an annual exam

“Many medical conditions have been associated with memory decline and Alzheimer’s disease,” says Lisa Mosconi, director of the Women's Brain Initiative and associate director of the Alzheimer's Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College. Examples include cardiovascular disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, high cholesterol levels and diabetes. A 2020 report from AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) concluded that “keeping your heart and blood vessels healthy, likely reduces your risk for cognitive decline and dementia.” Other issues — such as hormonal health, thyroid function and metabolic health — can also affect the brain. Depression affects more females than males and is linked to a significant risk of dementia, research shows. But many of these conditions can be managed by appropriate medical care and scheduling annual exams. For women over 40, the exam should include a full lipid and metabolic panel, which can help to identify a variety of conditions.

4. Try something new

Learning new things can keep brain cells working at optimum levels and may even limit memory decline, a University of California, Irvine study found. “Intellectual activity and mental stimulation is to the brain what exercise is to your muscles,” says Mosconi, author of The XX Brain: The Groundbreaking Science Empowering Women to Maximize Cognitive Heath and Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease. Try varying everyday activities. If you like movies, periodically trade an action flick for something educational, like a documentary or a TED Talk, she recommends. If you like playing chess, challenge your brain to learn a new game such as bridge. If you like to read, put down your novel for a day and read a self-help book. “Try a book about a topic that you really want to learn more about, whether it’s cooking or business or astronomy. You’ll learn something that’s going to stay with you. And that’s going to make a difference for your brain.”

5. Stick to a consistent bedtime

Research suggests that females are more likely to have a harder time getting adequate sleep than males. This is partially due to hormonal changes that women experience via menopause, stress and other health conditions. One of the best ways to improve your sleep, according to Mosconi, is to put down your devices “at least 45 minutes to an hour” before bedtime, as blue light can impact melatonin, which regulates the sleep-wake cycle. She also recommends training yourself to go to bed and to wake at the same time every day, which has been shown to have numerous benefits. And sleep, Mosconi says, “is really important for brain health because it’s the only chance that the brain has to really take care of itself.” So while you are sleeping, your brain is getting rid of waste products, toxins and plaques.

6. Phone a friend

Women report being more fulfilled by social interactions — and rewarded by the oxytocin hormone that’s released during them — than men do. And some research has found that senior women who enjoy a large social network had a 26 percent lower risk of dementia. So picking up the phone to call a loved one or making plans with a friend will not only brighten your mood, but it can also benefit your brain. Don’t have a lot of free time? One study found that 10 minutes of social interaction was enough to boost cognitive performance.

7. Follow a Mediterranean diet plan

Researchers at UCLA discovered that people who eat a Mediterranean diet — which is rich in fruits and vegetables, fish, nuts and olive oil — had lower levels of beta-amyloid plaque and less tangles of tau protein, which are hallmark pathologies of an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. And a Mayo Clinic study found that those on a Mediterranean plan had more thickness in brain areas associated with memory. Mosconi’s research has found similar results. “Using brain scans, we showed that the brain of a typical middle-aged woman on a Mediterranean diet looks five years younger than that of a woman who’s the same age but follows a Western diet,” Mosconi says. Scientists say there isn’t enough evidence to prove that the Mediterranean diet will help prevent Alzheimer’s, but it’s clearly a heart-healthy diet, and there is ample evidence that what’s good for the heart is good for the brain, according to AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health. —Nicole Pajer