'Seven steps to a healthy brain'

Brain health
Brain health

Seven simple steps to keeping your brain healthy - from childhood to old age - have been unveiled by scientists.

The ways to stave off dementia, stroke and heart disease include getting plenty of exercise, eating healthily, losing any extra weight, avoiding smoking and having regular health check-ups.

The new advice, compiled by a panel of leading neurologists and cardiologists, concludes that a healthy lifestyle benefits your brain as much as the rest of your body.

Dubbed 'Life's Simple Seven', they say adhering to it will lessen the risk of cognitive decline - a loss of the ability to think well - as you get older.

Keep your arteries strong

Vascular neurologist Dr Philip Gorelick, chair of the writing group, said: "Over time the arteries carrying blood to the brain may narrow or become damaged which can lead to dementia.

"The good news is that managing risk factors - and managing them early on - can keep those arteries strong and make a world of difference for our long term brain health."

Both the heart and brain need adequate blood flow but in many people blood vessels slowly become narrowed or blocked over the course of their life, a disease known medically as atherosclerosis.

This hardening of the arteries can lead to blood clots - the cause of many heart attacks and strokes.

But the researchers said many of the risk factors for the condition can be reduced by following a healthy diet, getting enough physical activity, avoiding tobacco products and other strategies.

Dr Gorelick, executive medical director of Mercy Health Hauenstein Neurosciences in the US, said:

"By following seven simple steps - Life's Simple 7 - not only can we prevent heart attack and stroke, we may also be able to prevent cognitive impairment."

The 'Life's Simple 7' programme urges people to:

* Manage blood pressure

* Control cholesterol

* Keep blood sugar normal

* Get physically active

* Eat a healthy diet

* Lose extra weight

* Don't start smoking, or quit the habit.

A healthy brain is defined as one that can pay attention, receive and recognise information from our senses; learn and remember; communicate; solve problems and make decisions; support mobility and regulate emotions. Cognitive impairment can affect any or all of those functions.

The advisory, published in the journal Stroke, stresses the importance of taking action as early as possible because atherosclerosis can begin in childhood.

Dr Gorelick said: "Studies are ongoing to learn how heart healthy strategies can impact brain health even early in life." Although more research is needed "the outlook is promising," he added.

High blood pressure - which affects about one in four British adults - is known to damage vessels that supply oxygen and nutrients to the heart and the brain, Dr Gorelick said.

Fatty deposits

The damage can lead to a buildup of fatty deposits, or atherosclerosis, as well as clotting. This narrows the vessels and can cause stroke or "mini-strokes." The resulting mental decline is called vascular dementia.

Previously, experts believed problems with thinking caused by Alzheimer's disease and other, similar conditions were entirely separate from stroke.

But Dr Gorelick said: "Over time we have learned the same risk factors for stroke that are referred to in Life's Simple 7 are also risk factors for Alzheimer's disease and possibly for some of the other neurodegenerative disorders."

About 850,000 people in the UK suffer from dementia, a figure forecast to rise to one million by 2025 and two million by 2050. There is currently no known cure.

The unveiling of the ‘seven steps’ to keeping were welcomed by dementia experts.

Physical health

Dr Laura Phipps, from Alzheimer's Research UK, said: "Our brains don't operate in isolation from the rest of our bodies and we know that many things people can do to promote physical health, can also have a positive impact on the brain.

"This report focuses on the role of cardiovascular health in keeping our brains functioning better for longer, and highlights action people can take to support both these areas of health.

"The authors recommend not smoking, controlling blood pressure and cholesterol, staying active, eating a balanced diet and maintaining a healthy weight - factors that have emerged again and again in research exploring links between lifestyle and the health of our brains.

"Although mental activity and social engagement can also play a role in cognitive health, a good rule of thumb for everyone is that what is good for your heart is also good for your brain.”

Dr Mike Knapton, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said: "The rising burden of dementia falls on individual families and communities, and the UK is facing a increasing challenge with the number of people living with dementia in the UK currently estimated to be over 850,000 people.

"Looking after your brain health very important, and the good news is that keeping your heart healthy will also protect your brain health.

"We would encourage people to take seven simple steps to a healthy lifestyle, including avoiding tobacco, looking after your diet, keeping active, and checking your blood pressure and cholesterol, to help maintain the health of your heart and brain."

Dubbed 'Life's Simple Seven', the guidelines were published in the journal Stroke.