Is Your Brain Healthy? Here's a Guide to Support Brain Health
Written and Reviewed by: Elysium Health
Brain health doesn’t have to be a mystery. Read on to understand the difference between occasional forgetfulness and mild cognitive impairment (82% of Americans are unfamiliar with the difference), how to assess your own brain health, and get science-backed tips for improving your brain health today.
- As we age, our brains shrink. This is part of normal aging and contributes to changes in cognition.
- Unlike occasional forgetfulness, mild cognitive impairment manifests as more noticeable changes in memory while not affecting the individual’s ability to perform their day-to-day activities.
- Methods for assessing brain aging and brain health range from at-home tests to clinical diagnostics.
- There are many ways to support brain health, including exercise, social engagement, nutrition, and avoiding alcohol.
- Matter: Contains an Oxford-developed B-vitamin complex clinically proven to slow brain shrinkage associated with mild cognitive problems. Matter is doctor-recommended to combat brain aging and to support long-term brain health.*
- Index: A simple, at-home, saliva-based epigenetics test that measures how quickly your brain and eight other systems in your body have been aging. Index also provides your overall biological age, rate of aging, and additional insights into how the rate of aging for each of your systems compares to others in the Index community.
Our brains are incredible. They weigh about three pounds, contain 86 billion neurons, and only require 23 watts of power (enough for a light bulb) for incredible feats of imagination, reasoning, and emotional connection. And so, as aspects of aging go, the idea of losing some of our cognitive faculties registers as scarier than, say, not being able to run the mile quite as fast. But how do we know how our brains are doing and what can we do to maintain healthy brains?
Thankfully, there are good answers, and tools, to respond to these questions and take control of our brain health.
Occasional forgetfulness and mild cognitive impairment—what’s the difference?
Like all parts of our body, the brain ages. Even if you are healthy, important regions of your brain, including gray matter, shrink during adulthood—and we may lose up to 20% of brain volume over a lifespan (see figure below). Since gray matter is involved in learning and memory, motor control, balance, and coordination, you can expect some changes involved with normal aging. For example, occasionally forgetting where your keys are or having trouble finding a particular word—this is considered a normal part of healthy aging, and it happens to roughly 40% of people after age 65.
In addition to occasional forgetfulness, there's something called mild cognitive impairment (MCI). If you haven’t heard of MCI, you’re not alone: 82% of Americans are unfamiliar with it, and at least a third of primary care practitioners aren’t comfortable identifying it. With MCI, the person loses things more often, forgets to go to important events or appointments, and has more difficulty coming up with words. Friends and family members are usually the first to notice these changes. The frequency with which an individual struggles with memory or cognition is what distinguishes this condition from occasional forgetfulness. MCI manifests as more noticeable changes in memory or thinking while not affecting the individual’s ability to perform their day-to-day activities.
Mild Cognitive Impairment
Sometimes forgetting which words to use
Losing things from time to time
Missing a monthly payment occasionally
Difficulty coming up with words
Losing things often
Forgetting to go to important events
This is not a complete list of all symptoms associated with these conditions.
Factors like genetics and certain health conditions, including sleep disorders and depression, can contribute to MCI. Some people with this condition return to normal cognition or just don’t decline further.
Of course, any memory concern, even if it’s mild, is a prompt to check in with your doctor. There are also steps you can take at home.
Can you assess how your brain is aging?
Think of brain health and aging like other aspects of health and aging. It’s amenable to measurement in a variety of ways, which are evolving as technology advances. Take fitness: There are many ways to measure fitness, from timed walks to grip strength tests to sit-to-stand tests. Likewise, there are various scientific and clinical ways to measure brain health and function, as well as tests that you can take at home.
Index by Elysium Health is a simple, at-home, saliva-based epigenetics test. Rather than assessing the actual health of your brain, Index measures how quickly your brain has been aging. In addition to the brain, Index also measures the biological age of eight other systems—heart, liver, kidney, hormone, immune, metabolic, inflammation, and blood—as well as your overall biological age and rate of aging. Each system age, including brain age, is based on DNA methylation signatures present in your genome that reflect a number of biomarkers relevant to that particular system. Biomarkers within each category were also chosen for how closely they are associated with aging and overall long-term health and wellness.
It turns out that everyone ages at a different rate, and the same is true for your brain. Unlike chronological age, which tells you the number of years you have been alive, biological age reflects the age your body (or your brain, in this case) is expected to perform or function. By taking Index at regular intervals, you can monitor how your brain is aging over time and assess the impact of lifestyle changes on your brain age. Index also provides a comparison chart that allows you to easily visualize how your brain is aging compared to others in the Index community. Because Index measures eight additional system ages (from one test), you gain unprecedented insight into the relative contribution of each system to your overall long-term health and wellness. You can read more about Index and system ages here.
In terms of more traditional cognitive tests, there are many different types and diagnostics. At the most general level, the Cleveland Clinic has a short exam meant for anyone to take at home called Healthy Brains. It’s an online self-assessment tool that combines a memory test with questions about six pillars of brain health, including physical exercise, food and nutrition, medical health, sleep and relaxation, mental fitness, and social interaction.
From here, these tests get more specific depending on what doctors or scientists are looking to investigate. The most common cognitive tests are the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA), Mini-Mental State Exam (MMSE), and the Mini-Cog. These are broad stroke tests that clinicians use to see if there might be a cognitive issue that needs further exploration. A research study involving cognitive function might ask questions about subjective memory concerns and daily living (such as sleep and eating habits) and offer objective memory problems to solve.
Brain health can also be assessed using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which measures brain volume—an indicator of cognitive health. While this type of imaging isn’t available to someone with normal concerns of aging, it may be in the future. Researchers have recently created an initiative called BrainChart. Their open-source website includes 123,984 MRI scans from 101,457 human participants between 115 days after birth to 100 years of age, data they used to create a new baseline for understanding how the brain develops in health and disease. Their findings were published in Nature. As brain scans become more accessible, perhaps we can look forward to brain charts becoming a standard part of our medical records.
12 ways to support your brain health
If you’re on the edge of your seat, wondering what you can do to stop the inevitable shrinkage of brain matter, here’s the good news: There’s actually a lot you can do to support your brain health, with scientific data to back it up. For starters, know that you’re already among the 18% of Americans who know about mild cognitive problems and other types of normal brain aging. If you have concerns, you can start a conversation with your primary care physician, that will get you on the fast track to solutions and treatments.
For those of you who just want to support your brain health with the best tools available, take our Index test to find out how quickly your brain as been aging or do an online self-assessment with Healthy Brains. These tools will help you identify lifestyle factors that can help optimize your brain health and discover pillars that deserve a little more attention. From there, there are many interventions supported by scientific research. Here’s a short list developed by our team:
Target brain volume loss and preserve cognition with Matter
- Consider taking Matter, a brain health supplement which 92% of physicians would recommend to combat brain aging and support long-term brain health*. Matter contains a tri-vitamin complex from the VITACOG study that is clinically proven to slow brain atrophy associated with mild cognitive problems. Additionally, Matter uniquely combines this Oxford-developed B-vitamin complex with omega-3s. A recent meta-analysis of data from 14 studies concluded that this combination of nutrients “benefits cognition in older adults” compared to a placebo.
- The effects of multi-nutrient formulas containing a combination of n-3 PUFA and B vitamins on cognition in the older adult: a systematic review and meta-analysis
Support mitochondrial function with Signal
- The brain consumes up to 20% of our energy, making it a “very expensive organ to run,” according to one researcher. This means the brain is highly dependent on our mitochondria, which number in the hundreds or thousands in a neuron. Unfortunately, as we age, so do our mitochondria. Signal is designed to promote mitochondrial health and new mitochondria synthesis by increasing NAD+ levels and activating SIRT3.
Follow the MIND diet
- Try a diet that isn’t a fad. The MIND diet, a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH diets—emphasizing vegetables, berries, nuts, whole grains, fish, and chicken—has been shown to slow the cognitive decline associated with aging.
- MIND Diet, Common Brain Pathologies, and Cognition in Community-Dwelling Older Adults
- MIND diet slows cognitive decline with aging
- Association of Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay and Mediterranean Diets With Alzheimer Disease Pathology
Socialize for brain function
- Stay connected. Social networks are associated with a variety of health benefits, possibly even brain function. One study showed that greater social engagement was associated with better “gray matter microstructural integrity” in parts of the brain associated with dementia.
- Greater Social Engagement and Greater Gray Matter Microstructural Integrity in Brain Regions Relevant to Dementia
Find your purpose
- Here’s a good reason to devote yourself to deeper meaning and purpose in life: A study found that higher levels of purpose in life reduced the impact of Alzheimer’s disease on cognitive decline.
- Effect of Purpose in Life on the Relation Between Alzheimer Disease Pathologic Changes on Cognitive Function in Advanced Age
Get regular exercise
- Get regular exercise, which has been shown to stimulate neurogenesis and brain plasticity, influence cognition and well-being—and may even reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia at any age. Moderate-to-high-intensity exercise appears to be especially beneficial.
- How does exercise keep your brain young?
- Exercise Alters Brain Chemistry to Protect Aging Synapses
- Genetic insights into the causal relationship between physical activity and cognitive functioning
- High-intensity exercise increases circulating BDNF levels
Hit the sleep sweet spot
- Get seven to eight hours of sleep. Getting enough sleep supports attention, language, reasoning, decision-making, learning, and memory. Lack of sleep, meanwhile, is associated with negative short- and long-term outcomes related to brain health.
- The Neuroprotective Aspects of Sleep
Learn something new
- Learn something new, whether taking a class or picking up a new hobby. Practicing something challenging and complex can improve elements of cognitive function (like memory), and one study even showed that knowing two languages (including one learned later in life) improves later-life cognition.
- Bilingualism may stave off dementia, study suggests
- The Impact of Sustained Engagement on Cognitive Function in Older Adults: The Synapse Project
- Train your brain
Avoid or reduce alcohol
- If you drink, do it in moderation, which usually means no more than two drinks for men and one for women per day. Alcoholics and heavy drinkers experience a variety of negative health outcomes, including reduced overall brain volume, especially gray matter. One study found that even one drink per day was associated with reduced global brain volume and two years of brain aging for an average 50-year-old
- Associations between alcohol consumption and gray and white matter volumes in the UK Biobank
- Need another reason to quit smoking? Consider your brain. Studies show that regular smoking increased relative brain age, a metric describing a subject’s brain age relative to peers, based on whole-brain anatomical measurements.
- Association of relative brain age with tobacco smoking, alcohol consumption, and genetic variants
- Struggling with depression? Consider getting some expert help. Long-term bouts with major depressive disorder can lead to changes to the brain, including a decrease in brain volume and more inflammation.
- Longitudinal brain volume changes in major depressive disorder
- Association of translocator protein total distribution volume with duration of untreated major depressive disorder: a cross-sectional study
Start a mindfulness meditation practice
- Researchers have found a variety of benefits associated with meditation, from improved concentration and attention in the short term to preserved gray matter volume in the long term.
- Forever Young(er): potential age-defying effects of long-term meditation on gray matter atrophy
*Based on a 2022 blinded and randomized survey of 151 internal medicine and preventative medicine doctors fielded by a leading healthcare professional sample provider. Each physician was required to have a medical degree (MD), be practicing medicine, and was provided small monetary compensation via the sample provider to participate in the survey.
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