Lorne Opler by Lorne Opler

Can there be anything more highly recommended and universally agreed upon than regular exercise and healthy nutrition for a sound mind and sound body? If there is, it’s the best-kept secret around. And that’s likely because there is nothing better and more frequently prescribed than diet and physical activity to help just about every part of the body to function at optimal levels. In short, diet and exercise are “no brainers,” especially when it comes to the brain.

Today, we have a better understanding of the positive effects of exercise and the foods we eat on mental health; common psychiatric conditions, from depression illness and bipolar disorder to schizophrenia and anxiety disorder, all benefit from regular bouts of physical activity and good nutrition. But what about cognitive health—our ability to remember things, our capacity to easily access, retrieve, interpret and articulate stored information from our brain? When that declines, can regular exercise and healthy eating help that, too? New research suggests that it can.

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is the term given to a condition where a slight but noticeable decline in cognitive abilities takes place. There are two types of MCI: (1) “amnestic MCI” affects a person’s recall and ability to remember things such as appointments and recent events and (2) “nonamnestic MCI” includes thinking skills, such as the ability to make decisions and solve complex tasks. A person with MCI has an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

MCI and the DASH Diet

In a study published in the December 19, 2018, online edition of the journal Neurology, researchers at Duke University Medical Center reported that an experimental group of older adults living with MCI (but not dementia) who participated in six months of thrice-weekly aerobic exercise, and followed the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), experienced substantial improvement in their “executive functioning.” Executive functioning refers to mental activities processed in the frontal lobe of the brain including remembering things, organizing tasks, managing time, paying attention and thinking creatively. Other groups in this randomized investigation that only followed the diet, only exercised or were only given health education material to study did not demonstrate this level of improvement to their MCI condition. In fact, the study demonstrated that improved planning skills as a result of the intervention rivaled skills of those who are eight years younger.

But why was the DASH diet, created specifically for people with hypertension and cardiovascular disease (CVD), chosen as the dietary intervention and not another type of healthy food plan? The answer comes from the investigators themselves, led by Dr. James Blumenthal, PhD, Gibbons Professor of Psychiatry at Duke University Medical Centre. Because there is an overlap of risk factors for both cardiovascular disease (CVD) and dementia, lifestyle interventions developed to lower the risk of CVD “also may be effective in improving neurocognition and reducing the risk of developing dementia,” the researchers concluded.

So, how can you apply this information to your own life? It is essential that you recognize that making changes to your lifestyle can have a dramatic and positive effect on your brain health (and overall health, of course). Approximately 10 to 20% of Americans older than age 65 may experience some form of MCI. For this reason, adhering to the recommendations of this study by incorporating regular aerobic exercise plus a DASH style nutrition plan, are good starting points for any older adult wanting to improve his or her overall wellness. Consider seeking the services of a qualified professional, such as a certified health coach or registered dietitian, to help guide you on the path to better health and wellness.

Want to advance your career as a health and exercise professional and help people learn how to make healthy changes to their lifestyles? Become an ACE Certified Health Coach