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How Exercise, Diet, Sleep, and Hearing Affect Brain Aging

In Hearing Health by Christa N. Smith, Au.D., CCC-A

Christa N. Smith, Au.D., CCC-A

Neuroscientists are pursuing new and innovative forms of research to better understand brain aging. Although the calendar tells us that people are a given number of years old, their brains can tell a quite different story. Some people are able to reach their golden years with relatively “younger” brains than their cohort who are the same calendar age. This principle has puzzled neuroscientists and other scholars, leading them to pursue research into the differences between those who have older or younger brains. When we understand the differences between these people, we can turn around and recommend lifestyle changes that might have an effect on brain age down the line. A recent study has aggregated some of the healthy habits that seem to contribute to a younger brain age. Three of them are common sources of health outcomes in other aspects of the body: exercise, diet, and sleep. We know that these lifestyle habits contribute to healthy hearts, lungs, joints, and mental wellbeing. A fourth factor is more unique: hearing. Those who have mild hearing loss are twice as likely to develop dementia as those with no hearing loss at all. Those who have moderate hearing loss are three times as likely, and those with severe hearing loss are up to five times more likely to develop dementia. With these numbers in mind, we might wonder what can be done. Getting treatment for hearing loss can lead to cortical restructuring and cognitive improvement, according to Stephen M. Stahl, MD, PhD, an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Diego. Let’s look at these different health factors, what they tell us about brain aging, and what you can do to improve your brain aging process. 


Healthy Lifestyles and Brain Age


When it comes to brain age, these four factors can contribute to a holistic approach to health. Getting physical exercise is crucial to keeping the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems of the body healthy. When we exercise, we induce moderate stress on the muscles, bones, lungs, and blood vessels of the body. That moderate amount of stress raises the threshold of functioning for the body, encouraging resilience in the face of danger. Take, for instance, the heart and blood vessels. When we exercise, we temporarily raise the pressure and speed of blood pumping through the body, delivering oxygen throughout the body’s systems, including the brain. By temporarily raising those levels, we raise the capacity for the resting body to circulate blood, as well. The brain thrives on plentiful oxygen and other nutrients, and exercise makes it possible to keep the brain healthy through a steady flow of these essential forces. Similarly, a healthy diet keeps nutrition flowing to the brain, as well. When we eat foods that are conducive to good health, our hearts and blood vessels can easily pump that nutrition through the body. On the contrary, a diet that is high in saturated fat, refined sugars, and other junk can clog the blood vessels and the chambers of the heart, making it more difficult to get oxygenated blood to the brain. Sleep has a more elusive relationship with brain health, but the numbers don’t lie. Those who get plenty of restful sleep have a younger brain age later in life. Sleep deprivation deposits beta amyloid in the brain, but restful sleep clears it from the brain. 


Hearing Health and Brain Age


Hearing loss is associated with brain atrophy and neurodegeneration, especially in the temporal cortex. Brain imaging shows that those who have untreated hearing loss recruit the parts of the brain that are usually devoted to complex thought to the task of sound processing instead. When this part of the brain is given to sound processing, it can shrink in size and suffer dysfunction. However, getting treatment for hearing loss can improve brain functioning and reduce the risk of dementia. If you are concerned about your brain age, shifting to these healthy lifestyle behaviors is a great way to set yourself up for success. Why not schedule a hearing test to see if you need treatment for hearing loss? That test might be helping your brain stay younger, as well.