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Staying Healthy in Your 20s: The Best Way to Protect Your Brain As You Age

December 11, 2017

If you’re in your twenties, there’s no shortage of good advice telling you what you should be doing now, when you’re young, so you can be happier when you’re older. Start saving money now, preferably in a 401(K), and you’ll be rich when you retire. Protect yourself with sunscreen when you go out in the sun and reduce the chances of skin cancer. And stop worrying what other people think about you. (It truly doesn’t matter!)

Researchers at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago have added another one, and this one is directly related to your future brain health. According to their work, following Life’s Simple 7 guidelines from the American Heart Association, in your twenties, the rate at which your brain ages can slow down, reducing the likelihood of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

The Life’s Simple 7 program outlines seven basic habits you can develop to have a healthier heart, which means the blood carrying nutrients and oxygen to your brain will keep flowing efficiently. The seven habits are:

  1. Manage your blood pressure. Maintaining normal blood pressure minimizes the strain on your heart, arteries and kidneys, leading to better heart health.
  2. Control your cholesterol levels. High cholesterol contributes to the plaque buildup that can clog arteries and reduce blood flow, as well as cause other issues like heart disease and stroke.
  3. Reduce blood sugar. High blood sugar damages the capillaries, which restricts blood flow, as well as damaging nerves and kidneys.
  4. Be active. Daily physical activity increases your muscle strength, including your heart. And you don’t need a health club membership to be active. Walking, hiking, biking and playing sports also work.
  5. Eat healthy foods. A heart healthy diet that includes plenty of fresh vegetables, fruit and whole grains is a great way to avoid cardiovascular disease.
  6. Lose some weight. Dropping even a few pounds reduces the burden your body places on your heart, lungs and blood vessels.
  7. Quit (or don’t even start) smoking. Cigarette smokers are far more likely to develop cardiovascular disease, not to mention what it does to your lungs. Plus, the benefits of quitting start to take effect within 20 minutes of your last cigarette.

The research from Northwestern University arose from a three-decade study that tracked 518 people, each of whom was rated at the beginning of the study on how well they adhered to the guidelines. Researchers assigned a score of zero, one or two points for every recommendation the subject followed, yielding a “heart healthy” score of up to 14 points. Every two to five years, follow-up exams were conducted, and each of the participants had brain scans 25 years into the study. Researchers then compared the “heart healthy” scores against the 25-year brain scans.

The results found that every one-point improvement in a young person’s initial score correlated to one year less in the aging of the brain. So as the score increased, the brain structure improved. This includes a slower rate of reduction in brain volume, which has been linked to memory loss.

So start taking care of your brain’s health as early as possible with these common-sense tips. Remember, it’s the only brain you get and you want it to last a long time!

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