Achieving and maintaining a normal weight is always beneficial to your health, no matter what age you are. It decreases your risk for other obesity-related diseases like diabetes, hypertension and heart disease to name just a few. But, if you’re middle-aged, ages 40 to 64, there’s one more reason for keeping your weight, and your blood sugar levels normal – protecting your brain health as you get older. Let me tell you why…
These 2 Numbers Can Predict Your Brain Health As You Age
If you’re middle-aged and you came to me for a check-up, I would first want to know about your general health. Being middle-aged tells me that you’re more prone to developing certain health conditions and existing conditions may start to worsen now. For that reason, there are 2 areas that I look at very closely to determine the risk to your near and future health. These are:
1. Blood sugar levels: Do you have type 2 diabetes already? Do you have borderline high blood sugar levels that put you at higher risk for developing it?
2. Blood pressure reading: High pressure ups your risk for stroke, eye and ear disease etc.
Why are these 2 factors in middle-age so predictive of your future health? Well, for one thing, diabetes puts you at a greater risk for developing a number of complicating health issues such as heart disease, stroke, eye disease, hearing problems, arthritis. Even borderline-high blood sugar may indicate a condition called metabolic resistance where your body doesn’t use insulin properly. You won’t burn energy properly and will wind up storing that energy as excess fat – right around your middle.
The excess weight also causes your blood pressure to rise as your blood vessels have to work harder to pump blood through all that excess tissue. In addition, excess body fat adds to the likelihood of higher “bad” cholesterol levels floating around in your blood and hardening into damaging plaques in your arteries. More arterial plaque means less blood flow getting through to feed and oxygenate your heart, eyes, kidneys, etc. New research out of the Mayo Clinic reports that there’s also one other target organ that is significantly affected by high blood sugar and blood pressure levels – your brain.
A recent study, “Diabetes in Middle-Age May Lead to Brain Cell Loss in Later Years”, published recently in Neurology magazine, revealed that diabetes (even pre-diabetes) and hypertension, can greatly up your risk for developing deteriorating brain health as you get older – even cause you to lose precious brain cells. Mayo Clinic researchers found that middle-aged persons who develop diabetes and high blood pressure are at much greater risk for developing increasing problems with memory, thinking and even dementia. In fact, the risk in middle-aged people is much greater than those who have never had diabetes, or high blood pressure, or developed these in later (post age 64) years.
In their study, 1,437 participants were studied – their average age 80. For those who had developed diabetes and/or high blood pressure in middle age, they were found to have brain volumes 2.9% smaller. In addition, they also had a much smaller hippocampus – the area of the brain that governs learning and memory. They were also twice as likely to have thinking and memory problems, or dementia, than those who didn’t have the conditions. The study also showed that a much larger number of people developed diabetes and high blood pressure in middle-age.
What Does This Mean for You?
If you’re middle-aged – or even older – and you’re carrying a little more weight than is healthy for your age/build there are a few things you can do proactively to help protect your brain against future damage. They include:
1. Get to a normal weight. Getting to a normal weight will help normalize blood sugar levels and keep you from progressing to full blown diabetes and its complications like high blood pressure and heart disease. If you already have high blood pressure, losing weight will also help drop those points significantly as there’s much less tissue through which to pump blood.
You can get to a normal weight, decrease your risk of diabetes and protect your brain from deteriorating conditions doing these 3 things:
1. Optimize your diet. Reduce/omit all refined sugars, or leave them for a very occasional treat like birthday, yearly holiday parties. Read labels and omit processed foods that are high in sugar (dextrose, corn syrup, fructose). Add some cinnamon to your foods that can help optimize insulin usage. As well, adding alpha-lipoic acid 100 mg a day and chromium 400 mcg a day can also help normalize blood sugar levels. Add more fiber to your diet in low sugar fruits, vegetables and no/low sugar-containing whole grain foods. The mineral magnesium also is helpful and most adults are deficient in it. See that your multi-vitamin has 250 to 500 mg.
2. Exercise. Regular exercise helps normalize blood sugar levels and helps you lose weight. It also releases stress and lowers blood pressure. A few years ago, a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology revealed that HIT – high intensity interval training – helps significantly boost insulin output and lower Hemoglobin A1c – an important blood sugar marker. It also promotes fat loss and your output of natural growth hormone which slows down aging and builds muscle strength. HIT is done in 1 minute bursts of very intense activity followed by a 90 second rest, and then repeat another 1 minute of intensity and rest for 90 seconds. Doing a set of 8-10 repetitions takes a little less than 20 minutes and need only be done 3 times a week for results. It can be done on an elliptical machine, a stationary bicycle, running on track, jumping rope, or by doing special HIT routines.
3. Relaxation. Stress is a big factor in diabetes and hypertension. Take 30 minutes to an hour everyday to unwind and relax. Engaging in activities you enjoy with friends, family, at least once a week, can also help lower stress cortisol levels that store fat (right around your belly) and up your risk for developing diabetes and hypertension.
I’ve always believed it’s crucial for doctors to help their patients – of all ages – prevent developing diabetes, hypertension and/or metabolic syndrome by fighting the #1 health problem facing all of us today – obesity. If we can prevent these conditions from developing, or better control them from further deteriorating, then we can prevent much of the brain damage that shows up years later. Middle-aged or older, it’s never too late to do all you can to normalize your weight, blood sugar and blood pressure levels, to ensure good brain health in your older years.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.
Association of type 2 diabetes with brain atrophy and cognitive impairment, Neurology, 2014; DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000000269
American Academy of Neurology. “High blood pressure, diabetes, smoking and obesity in middle age may shrink brain, damage thinking
Low-volume high-intensity interval training reduces hyperglycemia and increases muscle mitochondrial capacity in patients with type 2 diabetes, Journal of Applied Physiology, July 2011, http://www.jappl.org/content/111/6/1554.full