Skip to main content

How do we maintain a healthy brain?

Thursday, 9 March 2023News
elderly man exercising in the park

There is no sure way to prevent dementia but there are things we can do to get our brain healthy and keep it healthy.

What you do in your 40s influences your later life

Research shows us looking after your brain in your 40s, 50s and 60s is vitally important as this is when changes start to occur in the brain. By incorporating simple changes into your everyday life, you can lower your risk of developing dementia.

In fact, research tells us the health and lifestyle factors below contribute to between 35 per cent and 50 per cent of dementia cases worldwide:

  • Cardiovascular health conditions
  • Physical inactivity
  • Hearing loss
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Poor diet 
  • Depression
  • Social isolation

Risk reduction for dementia focuses on being brain healthy. You can do this by creating a healthier heart, body and mind. The earlier you can adopt these changes, the better.

Looking after your heart

Research shows that cardiovascular conditions, those that affect the heart and blood vessels, are linked to a higher risk of developing dementia later in life.

These conditions include:

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • High cholesterol
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Heart disease
  • Smoking

You can look after your heart by:

Getting regular health check-ups and monitoring your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood glucose levels, especially if you have a family history of cardiovascular conditions.

Maintain a healthy weight by developing eating patterns which include a healthy, varied diet and portion control. Speak to a health professional if you need help losing weight.

Stop smoking – it is never too late! Smoking increases the risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer as well as dementia. There is no safe level of smoking. There are many resources to help you quit, including nicotine replacement therapies, gums, patches or sprays. Get started by speaking with your doctor.

Limit alcohol intake as excessive alcohol consumption over time can result in brain damage that produces symptoms of dementia. If you drink alcohol, stick to the recommended Australian guidelines of no more than two standard drinks on any one day, and at least two alcohol-free days per week.

Looking after your body with exercise

A lack of physical activity is one of the highest contributing risk factors to cognitive decline and dementia in later life. Exercise helps keep the brain healthy and improves memory and thinking by:

  • supporting blood flow and oxygen supply to the brain
  • increasing new brain cells
  • contributing to brain reserve
  • protecting brain functioning in later life.

The current Australian Department of Health guidelines recommend: 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on at least five days a week and muscle strengthening activities twice a week.

Getting started is often the hardest part. The key is to find activities that you enjoy and will be able to keep doing. You might learn to dance, go swimming, play lawn bowls, or join a yoga class or walking group. If you find exercise boring, look for activities to do with a friend. Or join a local community group. You can also build activity into your everyday life, like walking to the shops instead of driving, or getting off the bus a few stops earlier and walk the rest of the way.


Looking after your body with what you eat

Diet affects the risk of developing heart disease and stroke, which are in turn risk factors for dementia.

Eating a healthy and balanced diet full of these four things can help:

  1. ‘Good’ fats such as olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds and fish has been associated with a lower risk of developing dementia. These fats may increase levels ‘good’ cholesterol, which may help protect brain cells.
  2. Omega-3 fats found in oily fish (such as tuna and salmon), flaxseed oil, walnuts and eggs are thought to protect blood vessels and may reduce inflammation in the brain. Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid, which means it must be obtained from the diet because the body doesn’t make it.
  3. Antioxidants that can be found in fruits and veggies (particularly in ones that are deeply or brightly coloured), whole grains, tea (especially green tea) and vegetable oils mop us destructive chemical molecules in the body known as free radicals, which result from our body’s use of oxygen to generate energy. Free radicals may contribute to brain cell death in Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.  
  4. B group vitamins such as B12 vitamins which can be found in meat, shellfish, dairy, tempeh, fermented foods and some fortified breakfast cereals. Folate (vitamin B9) is also important and can be found in leafy vegetables such as spinach, legumes, sunflower seeds, oranges, bananas, rockmelons, corn, pumpkin and parsnips. B group vitamins play important roles in cell metabolism. Deficiencies can cause a number of health problems including conditions associated with dementia such as cognitive deficits, memory loss and confusion. Some research suggests that low levels of vitamin B12 and folate (vitamin B9) in particular may be associated with increased risk of dementia.

Looking after other parts of your body

Sleep: Sleep plays a major role in brain health. It is critical for alertness, mood, daytime functioning and cognition. Increasing evidence shows that sleep disturbance can increase the risk of developing depression, cognitive problems and dementia later in life.

Hearing loss: More research is finding there may be a link between hearing loss and our risk of developing cognitive problems later in life. People with mild hearing loss are twice more likely to develop dementia than those with normal hearing, while people with severe hearing loss are five times more likely. If you start to notice problems with your hearing at any stage of life, you should talk to your doctor. Early diagnosis and intervention can help improve your quality of life and reduce your risk of dementia.

Protect your head: Research has shown that moderate to severe head injuries, or repeated blows to the head, may increase the risk of developing dementia in later life. The best approach is to protect our heads and avoid injury in the first place.

Looking after your mind

Keeping the brain stimulated and active is extremely important for our cognitive health. Research has shown the types of activities we do, how mentally and socially engaging they are, and how frequently we do them, can:

  • Build brain reserve, so it can cope better and keep working properly if any brain cells are damaged or die.
  • Build the brain’s neuroplasticity, through the growth of new brain cells, improved connections between existing brain cells and improved support networks surrounding brain cells.

Mental stimulation and new learning are linked to a reduced risk of dementia. Some activities that exercise the brain are:

  • reading
  • crossword puzzles
  • painting
  • sewing
  • woodwork
  • cooking
  • playing an instrument
  • using technology.

It is important to vary the activities and do them frequently.

Social interaction also helps to improve our wellbeing and reduce feelings of loneliness or depression. It may reduce our risk of cognitive decline so it is important to find ways to be social:

  • Say ‘hello’ or have a friendly chat with people you see through the day.
  • Catch up with friends over the phone or in-person.
  • Join a group activity through your local council, art gallery or museum.
  • Join activities through organisations like Men’s Shed Association and Volunteering Australia.


Where can I get more information?

For more information about being brain healthy, at any age, please speak with your doctor or call us on the National Dementia Helpline at any time on 1800 100 500.

You can also check out our helpful Healthy Brain, Healthy Life booklet( 1.9 MB), which has ideas on how to reduce risk for more of the risk factors listed in this article.

Want to know more about brain health? Check out these articles: 

Is dementia inevitable and should you do the gene test to find out? Actor Chris Hemsworth’s announcement that he carries two copies of the ApoE4 gene, increasing his risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, has generated a lot of conversation. But does this mean dementia is inevitable and is gene testing a good idea?

How do our brains work? The brain is one of our most important organs, yet most people understand very little about it. Come with us as we explore the different parts of the brain, how they work and why they are important.

Is there a way to track your brain health? We all have times where we don’t feel ourselves, but how can we determine if it is temporary or if there is something more going on? 

For more resources about brain health visit our library guide here:

Want to read more stories like this one? Subscribe to Dementia Australia’s eNews

Share or print
Last updated
28 November 2023