Report Ranks States by Brain Health

A new report says a healthy lifestyle results in a healthy mind.When it comes to improving your mind, you may have more control than you think, according to a report out Monday that ranks brain health by state. 

“America’s Brain Health Index” looks at 21 different brain health outcomes in its state-by-state comparison, focusing on the areas of diet and nutrition, physical health, mental health and social well-being. The rankings are part of a national health education campaign run by the National Center for Creative Aging – an advocacy organization affiliated with The George Washington University – working with life’sDHA, a nutritional products brand.

The campaign is called “Beautiful Minds: Finding Your Lifelong Potential.” Its goal is to spread the organization’s message to aging adults that simple lifestyle changes can create healthy, active minds with better memories, regardless of genetics.

“People take care of their teeth,” says campaign consultant Dr. Majid Fotuhi, founder and chief medical officer of NeurExpand Brain Center and a lecturer at Harvard Medical School. “There are simple things people can do every day to keep their teeth healthy. People can also take care of their brain by doing simple activities on a daily basis.” 

[READ: Food for Thought: Can the Paleo Diet Heal Mental Disorders?]

Those activities played into the state rankings, which also included factors such as consumption of DHA-fortified foods (such as foods containing salmon or fish oil supplements rich in omega-3 fatty acids), amounts of sleep, smoking rates, Alzheimer’s disease prevalence, education, and religious, spiritual and community involvement. The top states for brain health, along with the District of Columbia, are ranked below:

1. Maryland
2. Washington
3. Colorado
4. Connecticut
5. Alaska
6. District of Columbia 
7. Vermont
8. New York 
9. New Hampshire
10. Georgia 

The report’s two lowest-ranking states, Alabama (50) and Mississippi (51), had high incidences of obesity and cardiovascular disease-related deaths, as well as very little engagement in mentally stimulating activities like games or reading. Arkansas, Louisiana and North Dakota also ranked in the bottom five of brain-healthy states.

California, though not on the top 10 list, jumped the highest of any other state from its previous ranking of No. 24 in 2011. Researchers attributed this in part to Californians eating more DHA-rich fish, as well as to having the lowest number of smokers in the nation. Utah slipped the most from the 2011 rankings, when it came in at No. 8.

[ALSO: How to Protect Against Alzheimer’s Disease]

Nutrition is one of the most important factors for brain health: “The bigger the belly, the smaller the brain,” Fotuhi says. Obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, sleep apnea (or pauses in breathing while sleeping), stress and concussions are the worst lifestyle conditions for brain health, while exercise, healthy nutrition, meditation, participation in group activities, memorization and learning new things are the best, according to the report. If you exercise for three months, he says, your brain literally grows. If you have sleep apnea that is not treated, your brain shrinks.

“Your brain is constantly changing almost from day to day,” Fotuhi says. “The more you do good things, the more likely it is that you will have a strong brain as you grow older.” Neuroplasticity, or the growth of new brain cells, allows the brain to grow at any age, and simple changes that cause neuroplasticity have been shown to proactively affect the brain, his research shows.  

Fotuhi promotes the idea that people who make healthy lifestyle choices can reduce the symptoms of depression, bipolar disorder, dementia and Alzheimer’s, regardless of whether they have a genetic predisposition to such conditions. When you say someone has Alzheimer’s disease, he says it implies a hopeless condition for which there is no cure, but he also says he has seen people’s conditions turn around when they change aspects of their lives. 

Specifically, people should avoid transfats – like those found in fast food, fries, doughnuts and other items with high levels of sugar or salt – that increase blood sugar quickly. If you don’t have time to work out, try smaller steps like standing while you are working or parking your car farther when you are shopping or going to work, Fotuhi says.  

“I feel frustrated when people feel helpless about their brain health,” he says. “They should go for a walk, get together with friends, take supplements and have a healthy meal. Do the things that are healthy for the brain.

“The effects of your genes can be reversed.”  

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