Healthy lifestyles keep the brain active

The Introduction

brainWhen I completed my PhD at The University of Queensland in the early 1990’s, I had the statistical help of a gentleman names Dr Alf Howard. He was my first exposure to the ‘very old’ – a genius of a man who believed then in all that we now profess – a healthy and stress-free lifestyle keeps the mind active and an active mind keeps you young! Many of us have had the pleasure of working with such people, but what does the research say about healthy lifestyles and keeping the mind active. A group of French researchers recently examined associations of health behaviours over a 17-year period, separately and in combination, with cognition (thinking ability) in late midlife as part of the Whitehall II study (United Kingdom).

The Research

Health behaviours of 5,123 men and women were assessed in early midlife (mean age = 44 years; phase 1, 1985-1988), in midlife (mean age = 56 years; phase 5, 1997-1999), and in late midlife (mean age = 61 years; phase 7, 2002-2004). A score of the number of unhealthy behaviours (smoking, alcohol abstinence, low physical activity, and low fruit and vegetable consumption) was defined as ranging from 0 to 4. Poor executive function (thinking skills necessary to achieve a person’s goals in daily life, such as initiating and stopping actions, planning, anticipating outcomes and adapting to changing situations.) and memory in late midlife (phase 7) were measured and analysed.

The Results

Compared with those with no unhealthy behaviours, those with 3-4 unhealthy behaviours at phase 1 phase 5 and phase 7 were almost three times more likely to have poor executive function. A similar association (almost double) was observed for memory. The odds of poor executive function and memory were the greater the more times the participant reported unhealthy behaviours over the 3 phases. Current smokers scored lowest on memory, verbal and math-related thinking and reasoning skills at each of the three assessment points. This study concluded that both the number of unhealthy behaviours and their duration are associated with subsequent cognitive function in later life.

The So What?

While this study can only show a relationship between healthy lifestyle and brain function, it does not prove a ‘cause and effect’. However, it does highlight that if we want to stay mentally alert into older age, a lifestyle that involves no smoking, regular exercise, a healthy diet and moderate alcohol consumption (one drink per day for women and two for men) appears the way to go!

Sabia S, Nabi H, Kivimaki M, Shipley MJ, Marmot MG, Singh-Manoux A. (2009). Health behaviors from early to late midlife as predictors of cognitive function: The Whitehall II study. American Journal of Epidemiology.170(4): 428-437.