Healthy Eating & Physical Activity for:
a healthy brain & mental well-being
This fact sheet aims to identify the main age-related changes and conditions affecting the brain and psychological well-being; it will also outline healthy eating and physical activity that may help prevent, or delay, onset of these changes/conditions.
Age-related changes and conditions
As we age, there is a natural decline in body composition, particularly in the brain, as brain cells cannot regenerate. Once brain cells are damaged, they are not replaced.
The brain and nervous system
With ageing, blood supply to the brain is reduced,
neurons decline and become less elastic, which may
affect hearing and speech, memory and cognitive
function, or motor skills (balance and posture). Later,
this can lead to dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or
Oxidative stress is characterised by an imbalance
between pro-oxidants (“free radicals”) and anti-oxidants in the body. Free radicals accumulate in the body with ageing, which leads to tissue damage, potentially affecting many organs and systems, including the brain.
Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
Alzheimer’s disease is characterised by cognitive decline: a gradual loss of memory, reasoning, ability to communicate, and physical capability. Parkinson’s disease is characterised by motor decline: tremors, slowed movements, rigid muscles, impaired posture and balance, loss of automatic movement, speech and writing changes. Oxidative stress and inflammation are implicated in both conditions, and individuals with high blood pressure, diabetes, or obesity are at higher risk of developing these conditions.
Key nutrients to maintain a healthy brain and psychological well-being include:
- Omega-3 PUFAs
- Vitamins B1, B3, B6, Folate, B12, C, D, E
Carbohydrates are broken down to form glucose, which is the preferred fuel for the brain. Omega-3 PUFAs are a major component of neuronal membranes; they are important in brain development and function. Lower consumption of Omega-3 may increase the risk of neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.Water is important as dehydration can impair cognitive function and cause confusion and/or disorientation.The micronutrients, mentioned above, all contribute to brain and nerve function. Vitamins C, D, E and B3 affect overall neurological health; vitamins B1, B3, B6, B12 and C are involved in nerve function.Magnesium contributes to nerve transmission, copper to brain development, Iodine to mental development and selenium protects against oxidative damage.
Lifestyle changes with ageing may occur due to physiological and/or psychological changes however, some will occur due to changing economic or social factors. The main changes may include:
- Lack of funds to live well and eat healthily (16% of older adults live in poverty)
- Reduction in physical activity
- Living alone
- Living in a nursing home or hospital
Main factors increasing risk of brain related conditions
- Smoking and excess alcohol
- Family history – risk of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and dementia may run in families.
- Gender – around 65% of those with dementia are female (hormone related).
- Physical inactivity
- Mental inactivity – there is evidence that learning new things can slow neurological decline.
- Isolation – staying socially connected with others contributes to mental health and well-being.
- Medications – some medications may adversely affect brain function – ask your GP.
- Hormones – hormones in the brain decline with age adversely affecting cognition.
- Uncontrolled diabetes
- Poor diet
- Too much salt
- High blood pressure
Did you know?
the brain consumes about 120g glucose (420 kcal) daily!
Foods to eat
The brain is complex with many nutrients contributing to brain and mental health. Maintaining a healthy weight and eating a balanced diet, based on the “Eatwell Guide”, will reduce risks of age-related brain conditions.
- Fruit and vegetables
- Oily fish
- Dairy products
- Nuts and seeds
- Lean red meat and poultry
There are two types of physical activity: strength/resistance and cardiovascular. Both strength and cardiovascular exercise are essential to maintaining a healthy brain. Research has shown that those who have a physically active lifestyle have a reduced risk of declining cognitive skills and brain related conditions with ageing.
Fibre is important for heart health as it lowers blood pressure and cholesterol. Vitamin D and calcium work together to maintain cardiovascular health; folate and vitamin B12 work together to produce healthy red blood cells. Calcium and potassium are involved in the regulation of blood pressure while both calcium and magnesium help maintain a healthy heart beat.
- Over 50? Medical condition? – consult a GP before starting an exercise programme.
- Engage a personal trainer; optimise YOUR needs, and YOUR health.
- Warm up before exercise and cool down after.
- Do exercises correctly to reduce risk of injury.
This table provides a rough guide to foods containing key micronutrients with the approximate % of daily requirement (%DR); this is not a comprehensive list.