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Eating Right and Exercise Can Turn Back the Clock on Your Brain’s Age

Written by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

proper nutirtion and exercise

Story at-a-glance -

  • A recent study is the first to separately evaluate diet and exercise, and the effect they have on cognitive ability, finding those who improved their diet and continuously walked or cycled for 30 minutes three times a week reversed signs of brain aging
  • Past research has found a link between leg strength and brain health, finding the ability to perform load-bearing exercises was not only important to muscle mass and atrophy, but also to your body's chemistry
  • Sitting less than three hours each day and eating a cyclical ketogenic diet have also been linked to better brain health and cognitive functioning
  • Consider additional strategies to improve your brain health, such as getting eight hours of quality sleep each night, lowering your body inflammation, and optimizing your vitamin D level

According to a survey by AARP,1 93 percent of Americans believe maintaining brain health is very or extremely important. Contrary to popular belief, forgetfulness and senior moments are not an inevitable part of aging.

Although becoming forgetful is often regarded as normal as you get older, it is possible to maintain your quick wit and intelligence at any age. The good news is your brain is a dynamic organ, constantly adapting and changing, for better or for worse. Many of your daily activities, such as lack of sleep, can seriously interfere with your memory the next day.

On the other hand, a healthy lifestyle supports your brain health and even encourages your brain to grow new neurons, known as neurogenesis or neuroplasticity. For instance, studies have found how your body responds to stress may be a factor in how your brain ages, including an increased risk for dementia and Alzheimer's disease.2

Exercise is a lifestyle choice affecting your reaction to stress and is often valued for physical changes. However, there is also ample evidence to demonstrate strength training is as important for healthy brain and nervous system as it is for muscle strength. A new study demonstrates the elderly may be able to improve cognitive function with changes to dietary and exercise habits.3

Small Changes Reap Big Rewards in Cognitive Function

In just six months, researchers from Duke University found cognitive improvements in adults enrolled in their study. James Blumenthal, Ph.D., clinical psychologist from Duke University, led the research published in Neurology.

He believes this was the first study to look at the separate and combined effects of diet and exercise on cognitive decline in those who are vulnerable to developing dementia later in life. There were 160 adult participants with a previous history of high blood pressure or other cardiovascular risks, who never exercised and had cognitive challenges in executive functioning. 

Those who had a diagnosis of dementia were excluded. The average age was 65, and two-thirds were female. At the beginning of the study,4 the average cognitive skills in the participants were similar to those of individuals 93 years old — 28 years older on average than the actual age of the participants.

The volunteers were divided into four groups. The first participated in a structured aerobic exercise program for the first three months and were given exercises to do at home in the last three months. The second group were asked to eat a low sodium DASH diet and were educated on the program.

The third group were asked to exercise and change their diet at the same time. The fourth group served as a control and received a 30-minute educational session over the phone on how to improve their brain health, but were asked not to change their exercise or dietary habits.5

Results Revealed Reversal in Mental Age of Nine Years

Before the start of the study each underwent a battery of cognitive tests, a treadmill assessment stress test and a dietary analysis. Additionally, blood sugar and lipid levels were recorded. At the conclusion, researchers found those who followed the DASH diet with no exercise did not have a significant improvement in their thinking skills.

The group who only exercised had greater improvements in executive functioning than the group who did not exercise. But it was the group who changed their diet and exercised who were able to reverse their brain age by nine years, bringing their average mental age to 84.

The control group's executive function declined by six months, which was expected as they underwent no interventions, and it was the total length of the study. Dr. Richard Isaacson, director of the Alzheimer's Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medicine, who was not involved in the study, commented:6

"The results showed that controlled aerobic activity within a very short period of time can have a significant impact on the part of the brain that keeps people taking care of themselves, paying their bills and the like. Not only can you improve, but you can improve within six months!"

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Leg Strength Improves Nervous System Health

The participants in the study were asked to do 35 minutes of continuous walking or stationary cycling just three times a week.7 The current study supports other recent data published in Frontiers in Neuroscience,8 showing neurological health is as dependent on signals from your large leg muscles as it is on signals from your brain to your muscles.

In other words, it's a two-way street and neither is more important than the other. According to the press release, the finding9 "fundamentally alters brain and nervous system medicine — giving doctors new clues as to why patients with motor neuron disease, multiple sclerosis, spinal muscular atrophy and other neurological diseases often rapidly decline when their movement becomes limited."

The researchers found the ability to perform load-bearing exercises was not only important to muscle mass and atrophy, but also to your body's chemistry. Neurosignaling was impacted in such a way the nervous system and brain began to deteriorate in an animal study after only 28 days.

Two genes were also adversely impacted, one of which plays an important role in mitochondrial health and function. Healthy well-functioning mitochondria are crucial for optimal health. This may be the root of nearly all chronic diseases, including neurodegeneration, as your brain requires the most energy of any organ, nearly 20 percent generated in your body.

In her book "Sitting Kills, Moving Heals," Joan Vernikos Ph.D., former director of NASA's life science division, describes how weight-bearing against gravity is crucial component allowing human body and brain to function optimally. Another key factor is how exercise affects brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), found in both your brain and muscles.

Exercise stimulates production of a protein called FNDC5, which in turn triggers BDNF. In your brain, BDNF preserves existing brain cells, activating them to convert into new neurons and promoting actual brain growth.

In your neuromuscular system, BDNF protects your neuromotor, a critical element in your muscle protecting it from degradation. Neuromotor degradation is part of the process explaining age-related muscle atrophy. A list of studies demonstrating links between your muscles and brain in my previous article, "For Optimal Brain and Nervous System Health, You Need to Exercise Your Leg Muscles."

Reduce Sitting Time to Protect Your Cognitive and Physical Health

Lower body exercises are important to maintaining cognitive abilities as you age. Although the researchers demonstrated walking three times a week could improve cognitive abilities in just six months, other research has demonstrated physical damage done by sitting all day cannot be offset by exercising just once a day.

Prolonged periods of time spent sitting can be deadly. A research team10 evaluated 8,000 Americans over age 45 for a four-year period. Data demonstrated those who moved more were healthier overall. Consistent exercise helps improve your metabolism, reduces your risk of diabetes and certain cancers, and helps maintain a healthy weight.

Increasing inactivity as you age may also reduce your ability to remain mobile the older you get. One study11 found those who are most active and sat less than six hours a day were the least disabled as they aged, as compared to those who were the least active and got less than three hours of activity a week.

The researchers concluded,12 "reduction of sedentary time, combined with increased physical activity may be necessary to maintain function in older age." Another study from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine13 tracked a group of women and found those who sat for 10 or more hours a day experienced telomere shortening equivalent to eight years of aging.

In other words, too much sitting accelerated the physical aging process by eight years. Lead study author Aladdin Shadyab, Ph.D., UCSD School of Medicine, said in a news release,14 "Our study found cells age faster with a sedentary lifestyle. Chronological age does not always match biological age."

Cyclical Ketogenic Nutrition Plan and Intermittent Fasting Supports Brain Health

In the featured study, participants used the DASH diet, which reduces processed foods and increases intake of whole foods. However, the food plan does not address the compelling changes in health produced by eating a ketogenic diet.

One of the most striking studies15 on carbohydrates and brain health revealed high-carbohydrate diets increase your risk of dementia by 89 percent, while high-fat diets lower it by 44 percent.

A ketogenic diet is high in healthy fats and low in net carbohydrates (total carbs minus fiber), prompting your body to start burning fat as its primary fuel, rather than sugar. This produces ketones, which not only burn efficiently but are also a superior fuel for your brain. Ketones also generate fewer reactive oxygen species (ROS) and less free-radical damage.

Recent papers have also demonstrated the benefits of nutritional ketosis for brain health. In the first,16 researchers found a ketogenic diet improved neurovascular function, in part by improving your gut microbiome.

In the second paper,17 the authors concluded a ketogenic diet acted as a veritable "fountain of youth" in their animal study by significantly improving neurovascular and metabolic functions, compared to the animals eating an unrestricted diet.

Poor neurovascular function is associated with the loss of language, memory and attention and a reduction in cerebral blood flow which raises your risk for depression, anxiety and dementia.

Authors of the study analyzing the effect of a ketogenic diet on neurovascular function in an animal model wrote,18 "Collectively, KD [ketogenic diet] may be protective against various neurological disorders, possibly through the restoration of neurovascular function and by maintaining healthy gut microbiome."

Consider These Strategies to Support Cognitive Health

Eating a ketogenic diet helps protect your brain from free radical damage and supplies the cells with preferred fuel. You may also consider including additional foods and strategies to support your cognitive health. In my previous article, "What Are Some of the Best Brain-Boosting Foods?" are listed foods you may easily incorporate into your daily nutrition plan. The following are additional strategies to consider:

Vitamin D — Vitamin D is a steroid hormone that influences virtually every cell in your body, which is why maintaining a healthy level between 60 ng/mL to 80 ng/mL is important not just for your bones but also for heart and brain health, optimal immune function and general disease prevention.

In fact, there's an important connection between insufficient vitamin D and insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and diabetes, both Type 119 (insulin-dependent diabetes) and Type 2,20 and both affect brain health.21,22

Sleep — During deep sleep your brain activates the glymphatic system, allowing detoxification and elimination of accumulated waste products, including amyloid-beta proteins, a hallmark of Alzheimer's disease. It is important to achieve eight hours of quality sleep each night, which I discuss in my previous article, "Sleep — Why You Need It and 50 Ways to Improve It."

Lowering Inflammation — Chronic inflammation and obesity can adversely impact your brain function.23 For a list of foods shown to reduce inflammation and a discussion about how inflammation is linked to brain volume, see my previous article, "Foods That Prevent Inflammation Also Enhance Your Brain Function." Some foods include garlic, blueberries, walnuts and spinach.

Ashwagandha — Memory enhancement is one traditional use, particularly of the root. A 2017 study published in the Journal of Dietary Supplements24 showed positive results using ashwagandha root extract to improve memory and cognitive functions in 50 people with mild cognitive impairment.

BacopaBacopa (Bacopa monnieri), or moneywort, is a popular herb in Ayurvedic medicine used in India for over three centuries. The bacopa herb is commonly known as a nootropic herb, which means it can help repair damaged neurons and improve brain function. Nootropics are usually said to have the ability to "unlock" the brain when it comes to creativity and cognitive drive.25

Curcumin — A double-blind, placebo-controlled study26 included 40 adults between the ages of 50 and 90 with reported mild memory lapses but no dementia. Those who received curcumin supplementation saw significant improvements in memory and concentration, while the control group experienced no improvement.