How Women Can Maintain a Healthy Brain

Lately, you’ve been misplacing your keys and forgetting why you walked into a room. Although growing older makes you increasingly likely to experience such lapses in cognition and memory, you can lower your risk of such decline and even offset the effects of aging, says Silky Pahlajani, M.D is Assistant Professor of Neuropsychiatry Research in Radiology.

Comparing Women's and Men's Brain Developments

Forgetfulness is common in older adults, but not necessarily a sign of Alzheimer’s disease, as many women fear, since they have a greater risk than men of developing it. The fact is, women's brains age differently overall than men’s, primarily because of hormonal differences, Dr. Pahlajani says.

“Estrogen is not just a reproductive hormone but is vital for energy production in the brain and impacts brain function,” she says. “Symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes, insomnia, night sweats, memory and mood changes actually start in the brain and not in the ovaries,” she says.

Maintaining Healthy Cognitive Functions

Fortunately, there are things that you can do to delay cognitive decline or decrease your chances of developing age-related dementia, such as exercising regularly. “Aerobic exercise that raises your heart rate for at least 30 minutes, four to five times a week is great for the brain,” Dr. Pahlajani says. “When the heart pumps faster, there is an increase in blood flow throughout the body and therefore more oxygen goes to the brain,” she explains. “Studies show that exercise can reduce the chance of developing cognitive decline by up to 30%, which is a big percentage,” she says.

Another way to protect your brain is to reduce stress and anxiety. “When our brain is busy being anxious or stressed, there's less room for memory and it impacts our ability to focus and concentrate,” she says.

Getting seven to eight hours a night of sleep is important, too. “Sleep is the garbage truck for your brain,” Dr. Pahlajani says. “It's when the body gets rid of toxins and replenishes itself, so, it's essential.” And yes, whether you get six or seven hours of sleep makes a difference. “Six versus seven hours can increase the chances of depression and anxiety, which ties into memory and cognition,” she says. “Keep in mind that your brain is connected to your entire body.”

Before you start relying on vitamins to support your brain function, try improving your diet. “Research shows that plant-based nutrients are among the best ways to get antioxidants, which support women's brain health,” Dr. Pahlajani says. “The Mediterranean diet, which includes foods rich in plant-based estrogens, is great for the brain, since women lose estrogen during menopause,” she says.

Coffee beans are also rich in antioxidants. “A double espresso, or one to two cups of American coffee have the highest antioxidant power,” Dr. Pahlajani says. Any more than that will diminish brain power, however.

Don’t forget about berries and fish, which are also full of antioxidants. “Clinical trials show that eating three ounces of fish twice a week--primarily fatty fish, like salmon or anchovies--is enough to decrease the risk factor for dementia,” she says. Vegetarians can get this benefit by consuming one tablespoon of flaxseed oil or extra-virgin olive oil daily.

Finally, keep engaging socially and learning new things. “The brain is like any other muscle in the body: it plateaus when you do the same things over and over again,” Dr. Pahlajani says. Social interaction stimulates the brain and is one of the best ways to protect it. “What's good for the heart is good for the brain,” she says. “Supplements cannot replace a healthy lifestyle and diet, which are investments in our cognitive future.”

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Clinical Service