Lisa Mosconi, PhD, is a neuroscientist and neuro-nutritionist and an expert on women’s brain health and longevity. As an associate professor and the director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Program at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City and the author of The XX Brain, she focuses on the intersection of neurology, neuroscience, radiology, and women’s health. Here are her top three pieces of advice for nourishing and sustaining female brain health well into old age.
1. Regular—but maybe not typical—health screenings
For women in general, there are two tests I encourage beyond mammograms, Pap smears, and colonoscopies once you’re over 50: blood work and cognitive testing. In terms of blood work, we look at lipids and metabolic markers. The basic lipid panel would be cholesterol, and you want to look at your total cholesterol, your LDL (low density lipoprotein cholesterol), and your HDL (high density cholesterol), because those markers tell somewhat different stories and are the ratios that are quite important for prevention of cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Triglycerides are also important. You don’t want to have too much fat in your body because it can create inflammation, and lead to obesity and metabolic disregulation. It’s good to have a good baseline and make sure that your lipids are within normal limits, and then if you can optimize, why not? And metabolic markers are very important. Glucose is obviously important. Your glycemia is an important factor for metabolic health, but also for brain health. Insulin and hemoglobin A1C, are other important markers to have, because a lot of people in this country are pre-diabetics or insulin-resistant and don’t realize it. That is really a problem for your heart, for your entire body, and for your brain as well. And it’s something that can be really addressed, mitigated, and even reversed by undergoing or by undertaking lifestyle adjustments and modifications.
And thorough cognitive testing gives you, if nothing else, a very strong baseline. Every doctor’s dream, I think, is to be able to compare you to you when you had no problems. So I think you’re doing a favor to your doctor as well to have a solid baseline when you’re feeling fine, or when you’re just starting to have some changes.
2. Good brain food
Once you cut out processed food—trans saturated fat, fast food, packaged foods, anything that is processed, that doesn’t come directly from nature—and focus on whole foods, your diet is already in a very good place. Processed foods come with an arsenal of chemicals and fillers and emulsifiers and all these substances that are potentially harmful to your metabolic, cardiovascular, and brain health. We know from many studies that individuals who consume processed and fast food quite regularly have double the odds of developing dementia in late life as compared to individuals who focus more on whole foods and a healthier, fresher, and less processed diet.
I understand that there’s a concern about access that is very real and very important, and that not everybody can afford to eat fresh, local, organic whole foods. I think it’s very important to clarify that we’re not talking absolutes here. So you do the best that you can. Fast food I would avoid, if you can. But even if you do choose processed foods, there are different levels of processed foods. There are ultra-processed food that really, honestly should be avoided—and then there’s minimally processed food or moderately processed foods that one can consume maybe in moderation or with more attention.
But the healthiest diets really focus on plants. We say that food is medicine, but to be honest, and to be fair, plants are medicine because all the good nutrients that are important for health are found predominantly in plant-based foods. All the vitamins, all the minerals, all the phytonutrients come from plants. They’re really crucial to support the immune system, to support the heart, to support the brain, to support your liver. Every part of your body benefits when your diet is rich in super nutrients. So you want foods that are very dense with nutrients that are supportive for health: Some people say superfoods. The technical word is nutrient-dense foods.
In this regard, the Mediterranean diet is one of the most researched diets so far, and it’s been labeled many times as one of the healthiest dietary patterns in the world. And now there’s a greener version of the Mediterranean diet that I think really deserves attention, that focuses even more on plant-based foods. I’m not suggesting that everybody gets vegan or vegetarian. I’m just saying you really want to make sure that you have an adequate amount of plant-based foods, especially leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower and broccoli and Brussels sprouts and cabbage. They’re all inexpensive and underrated, and so are kale and spinach and lettuces. You really want to make sure that there’s a lot of green on your plate. And then fruit is getting a bad rap—but I think we should really pay attention to the fact that antioxidants in fruit are very important for health. And then if you don’t want to eat grains, that’s up to you. But at least veggies and fruit should be a very important part of everybody’s diet.
3. Meditation for sleep and stress
We need to realize that lack of sleep and too much stress are also really bad for your hormonal production when it comes to menopause and the symptoms of menopause. There’s one study in particular that I like to talk about that looked at thousands of people starting in midlife and beyond, and they show that chronically high cortisol, or stress, levels are linked to memory changes. Memory declines already in midlife for both men and women, but brain shrinkage only affects women. So this is something that was really eye-opening for me, and I think that there’s something to be said about stress reduction techniques. They should be part of everybody’s medical workup because we know that exercise really helps fight stress and support mood, which is very important.
Meditation has been quite underrated in medicine for a long time, but there’s increasing evidence that it really has a positive effect on the brain. Anyone who meditates will tell you it actually makes a difference. There are some meditation techniques that are intimidating because they’re complicated: You need training, you have to go somewhere. You need the guide. But there are shorter meditations that anyone can do. There’s one that I personally practice, called Kirtan Kriya—it comes from Kundalini yoga, from that tradition—and it takes 12 minutes. You are chanting, but you don’t have to, and you repeat the word satanama for 12 minutes while doing finger tapping. And you can find it on Spotify; you can find it on YouTube. It takes really 12 minutes. But if you do it consistently for a few months at a time, it’s been shown to improve blood flow to the brain, reduce cortisol levels, and support overall mood and stress levels in women in clinical trials. Anyone can do it, and it seems to be really helpful.
Any content published by Oprah Daily is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It should not be regarded as a substitute for professional guidance from your healthcare provider.
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