Can a Healthy Body Equal a Healthy Brain?

iStock_000012048011_FullAARP is celebrating health living for April. Overall, Americans perceive their health to be excellent or good, and our research shows perceived health declines only 7 percentage points over a 45-year age range (72 percent among those ages 35-39, 67 percent among those ages 55-59, and 65 percent ages 75 to 80).

In AARP’s Happiness Study, when asked about serious health conditions (e.g., diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, etc.) 12 percent of those ages 35-39 had two or more conditions, compared with 40 percent of those 55-59 and 49 percent of the 75-80-year-olds. Multiple chronic conditions increased over 4 times over the same age range with a relatively small decrease in happiness. Perhaps “healthy living” means folks believe they have their health under control and are managing quite well for people their age and/or in comparison to their peers.

AARP is all for helping folks take better control of their health, and our Staying Sharp membership addresses their expressed interests in brain health. Our AARP member survey shows the No. 1 interest and concern is staying mentally sharp. A specialized AARP membership includes resources that members can use each day to complement their lifestyle. Brain health is achieved by challenging and stimulating the brain throughout life.

Our own research as well as a new review from the Institute of Medicine shows that focusing on five health pillars can positively affect our brain’s ability to stay healthy. And, as a bonus, working on these areas will benefit the rest of your health and life as well.

These five areas are:

Keeping fit: Even small amounts of daily exercise like walking can positively affect your brain. I walk to work every day, and while it is only 1.4 miles round trip, I try to walk 4 miles a day on the weekends. This also gives me ample time to observe all the comings and goings in my neighborhood!

Learning more: Regardless of age, a fit, active mind benefits all you do. Staying Sharp members can participate in exercises designed to help improve key areas of cognitive function with various levels of difficulty. I don’t do this yet — I’ve got to figure this one out.

Managing stress: Getting a good night’s sleep on a consistent basis and using tools to help you stay calm when you are particularly stressed are important. I’m lucky in that I love sleeping and have never felt stressed for any length of time.

Eating right: Eating healthy foods is great for our brain health, as well as the rest of our body. If I were stranded on a desert island, tuna, salmon and three-color lettuce (if available!) would make me totally content. No volleyball friends needed.

Being social: Being around others does the brain good. I know socializing is important, and when I retire I intend to mimic my dad, who went to the coffee shop every day at 4 p.m. to meet his buddies and solve the world’s problems for an hour.

Everyone can learn fun ways to exercise the brain and live a healthier lifestyle at AARP’s Brain Health Center.

Need more convincing about the link between physical fitness and brain health? A new survey presented at the American Heart Association’s EPI/Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health 2015 Scientific Session in March found that people who are fit in their 40s seem to retain more brain volume two decades later and also perform better on decision-making tests. A group of 1,271 people underwent exercise treadmill testing in the 1970s when their average age was 41. Then, in their 60s, the participants underwent MRI brain scans and mental performance tests. Those at midlife who had experienced a greater increase in heart rate or diastolic blood pressure after a few minutes of low-intensity exercise on a treadmill (a sign of lower fitness levels) had smaller brain volumes later in life. Similarly, those with larger increases in blood pressure levels during low-intensity exercise in their 40s performed worse on a cognition test of decision-making ability in their 60s.

On a final note, living better every day also means having adequate health care coverage for those times when you do get sick. AARP research shows that 89 percent of boomers and 87 percent of Gen Xers have insurance, and those percentages should improve as the Affordable Care Act program matures. But how many can say they can see a doctor when they want, have insurance that covers a wide range of services, and are able to see any doctor or go to any hospital? Health care in the United States is increasingly accessible to larger numbers of people due to the ACA, but the system is stressful, sometimes impossible to understand, and complicated to navigate to try to find answers. Oh, for a health system where we felt cared for and not just covered.


More from AARP Research:

AARP Happiness Study: On Thriving

AARP Brain Health Study

Getting to Know Americans Age 50+: Fact Sheets

Planning for Health Care Costs in Retirement: A 2014 Survey of 50+ Workers

Cognitive Aging: Progress in Understanding and Opportunities for Action

Becky Gillan is the senior vice president of AARP Research and is focused on fostering understanding of the interests and concerns of people age 50-plus and their families. Before coming to AARP, she served as the vice president of global market research and guest satisfaction for Starwood Hotels & Resorts. In her spare time, she likes visiting her niece in Ohio, gardening and collecting American art and antiques.