5 things that might surprise you about brain health
We live in an age where information has never been easier to find, or harder to trust. When it comes to brain health, separating fact from fiction isn’t always easy – so let’s examine some common myths and put the record straight.
- Dementia isn’t an inevitable part of getting older
This is perhaps one of the biggest misunderstandings. While our risk of dementia increases as we age, there’s no certainty that we’ll develop the condition as we get older. We can’t control our age, but we can affect our risk by looking after our heart health, staying sharp, and keeping connected to others. In fact, it’s estimated that up to 40% of dementia cases could be due to factors we may be able to influence.
Of course, some healthy, active people still go on to develop dementia, and this might be what fuels the myth that there’s nothing you can do. But while there isn’t yet a sure-fire prevention, looking after your brain health can shift the odds more in your favour.
One way of thinking about this is to look at the chances of breaking down on a car journey. Keeping your vehicle in good condition won’t guarantee that you’ll never break down, but it will reduce some of the risk. Just as we maintain our cars to keep them on the road, looking after our precious brains, that do so much for us, can help keep them healthier for longer.
- You don’t need to hit the gym every day to keep your brain healthy
Keeping active is important for your heart and brain health. But physical activity comes in many forms.
The best form of exercise and how much you should do depends on many factors – how fit you are, what other health problems you might have, and what you enjoy doing. And, while there is some evidence for the claim that 10,000 steps a day is the right amount to keep you healthy, in truth there is no magic number of steps to aim for.
The key is to find an activity that gets you moving, makes your heart beat faster and gets you out of breath. If a brisk walk or a visit to the gym aren’t for you, it’s more important to find something you enjoy and will stick at – whether that’s gardening, dancing or something else entirely. As keeping socially active and engaged is also good for your brain, if you have friends who enjoy the same things as you, perhaps consider exercising together.
- There’s no wonder food for preventing dementia
You could fill a library with articles that have been written about foods that are said to either stave off, or cause, dementia. So if you’re wondering just what you should be eating, you’d be forgiven for feeling confused.
One common claim is that foods with high levels of antioxidants will boost brain health, but so far there’s limited evidence to back this up. Similarly, studies into coconut oil and gingko biloba have shown no benefit for dementia risk, despite claims to the contrary.
On the other hand, some research into omega-3 fatty acids, which are commonly found in oily fish, suggests there may be a benefit for our brains. Research into this is still ongoing.
Dietary supplements are big business, and plenty of websites sell vitamins on the promise of boosting brain health. B vitamins are a particular focus of debate – and they are important for brain function. But supplements are only recommended for people with a diagnosed deficiency, and should be taken with a doctor’s support.
The truth is there’s no ‘superfood’ that will prevent dementia. But a balanced diet – one with plenty of fruit and vegetables, that’s low in saturated fat and sugar – will give most of us all the vitamins and minerals we need, and support our brain health.
- Staying sharp isn’t all about brain training games
Several studies have suggested that regularly challenging our brains can help protect them as we age. By keeping mentally active, we help to build what’s known as ‘cognitive reserve’ – a type of resilience that helps the brain form new connections between cells and withstand damage from disease for longer. But how can you ‘challenge’ your brain?
You’ll find dozens of ‘brain training games’ on your smartphone’s app store, which might be enjoyable, and even challenging. But so far, research suggests most of these games are best at teaching people to become very good at one particular puzzle. There’s currently little evidence to suggest that most repetitive ‘brain training’ games will help our overall brain health.
So what should we do instead? It’s likely the answer will differ from one person to another. For some it might mean reading regularly, for others, it could be learning a language. The key is to find something you enjoy and find challenging, and which offers variety.
- Having a parent with dementia doesn’t mean you’ll develop it too
One common misconception is that having a parent with dementia means you’ll develop the condition in future. But in most cases, dementia isn’t passed down in families.
In very rare cases, some forms of dementia are caused by a faulty gene that is passed from one generation to the next. Usually people affected develop the condition in their 30s, 40s or 50s – much younger than you’d typically expect. But this only accounts for a tiny proportion of all people with dementia in the UK.
Scientists have also identified many risk genes for Alzheimer’s, the disease that is the most common cause of dementia. But, although having one of these genes may increase a person’s risk, it doesn’t mean they’re destined to develop Alzheimer’s. And studies have shown that people who carry a risk gene can still lower their risk by adopting healthy habits.
Ultimately, the best advice is to follow our three simple rules: love your heart, stay connected, and keep sharp, and you’ll be doing all you can to help your incredible brain.
About the author
Prof Jonathan (Jon) Schott
Professor of Neurology at the Dementia Research Centre, UCL
Prof Jonathan (Jon) Schott is Professor of Neurology at the Dementia Research Centre, UCL where he leads on a number of clinical research projects. He is an Honorary Consultant Neurologist at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Queen Square, where he runs a busy cognitive disorders service with a particular emphasis on young onset and unusual dementias. Jon is also Alzheimer’s Research UK's Chief Medical Officer, providing vital expertise and advice.