When you’re in your 20s, it can be tempting to think of your 40s as a mystical age that’s too far away to worry about and not relevant to you at all. After all, aren’t scary things like heart disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol “older people issues”?
While the world might appear to be your oyster right now, new research shows that the lifestyle decisions you make in your 20s directly impacts your brain health in your 40s. In other words, taking care of your heart by following a proper diet and exercise regimen could actually prevent your brain from shrinking later.
“We found that individuals who maintained better cardiovascular health in young adulthood had higher brain volume in later adulthood,” explains lead researcher Michael Bancks, postdoctoral fellow at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. Exercise and diet were two of the most crucial components to combat brain shrinkage, which has been tied to Alzheimer’s disease as well as dementia.
The study, which appears in the journal Neurology, was based around Life’s Simple 7 guidelines created by the American Heart Association to help people improve their heart health. The recommendations include maintaining healthy blood pressure and cholesterol, keeping low blood sugar, staying active, eating healthy, losing weight and quitting smoking.
Researchers tracked 518 people for three decades who have a current average age of 51. Each of the participants were rated at the beginning of the study on how well they adhered to the guidelines, giving a score between zero and two points for every recommendation followed, with a maximum “heart healthy” score of 14. Follow-up exams were conducted every two to five years, and each of the individuals had brain scans 25 years after the study began. Researchers then took the scores tallied at the start and compared them to the brain scans taken 25 years into the study.
The results showed that for every one-point improvement in a young person’s initial score, there was a correlation to brain health later on — “essentially the same as one year less in brain aging,” Bancks explained. “As the score increases, you see a better result for brain structure.”
And that would mean that if you spent the decade drinking, smoking, being sedentary and eating lots of unhealthy foods, your brain is more likely to suffer the consequences. It’s important to note that not all of the Life’s Simple 7 guidelines held the same weight. According to the study, smoking can do more damage to your brain health than all the other factors, as it was more closely associated with smaller brain volume.
Where does the heart and brain connection come into play?
“The brain is supplied by this rich network of blood vessels, which provides the oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood it needs to function normally,” explained Bancks. “A healthy heart helps ensure enough blood is pumped through these blood vessels, and healthy blood vessels help ensure that network is intact to supply the entire brain with nutrients and oxygen.”
If you did happen to spend your 20s partying like a rock star — or are continuing to do so — don’t despair. Use the knowledge of this study to inspire healthy changes in your life now.
“These findings are exciting because these are all changes that anyone can make at a young age to help themselves live a long and healthy life. This may mean that heart health may have an impact on brain function in early life, but more study needs to be done to confirm this theory,” explained Bancks.
So get your sneakers on, because even as little as one minute of running a day has amazing benefits for your health. Also, here are some fantastic brain-boosting recipes to keep your mind young so you’ll be able to remember all the life lessons every 20-something should know!
What Do YOU Think?
Are you surprised by the findings of this study? Do you believe the health choices you make in your 20s have a significant impact on your health later in life? Will this study inspire you to change your habits?