The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

Lifestyle Choices Can Cause Your Brain to Shrink

Some lifestyle choices are linked to cognitive decline.

study released on May 2, 2013 in the American Heart Association jounal Stroke found that brain function in people as young as 35 begins to decline as heart disease risk factors increase. Smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes were all linked to increased odds of cognitive decline.  

Hanneke Joosten, M.D., lead author of the study said, "Most people know the negative effects of heart risk factors such as heart attack, stroke and renal impairment, but they do not realize it affects cognitive health. What's bad for the heart is also bad for the brain." Adding, "Young adults may think the consequences of smoking or being overweight are years down the road, but they aren't." 

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

The Dutch researchers from University Medical Center in Groningen discovered:

  • Participants with the most heart disease risks performed 50 percent worse on cognitive tests as compared to participants with the lowest risk profile.
  • The overall Framingham Risk Score, age, diabetes, bad cholesterol and smoking were negatively linked to poor cognitive scores.
  • Compared to non-smoking participants, those who smoked one to 15 cigarettes daily had a decrease in cognitive score of 2.41 points and those smoking more than 16 cigarettes daily had a decrease of 3.43 points. The memory scores had a similar association.
  • Two risk factors – smoking and diabetes – were strong determinants of cognitive function. 

"There clearly is a dose response among smokers, with heavy smokers having a lower cognitive function than light or non-smokers," Joosten said. "It is likely that smoking cessation has a beneficial effect on cognitive function."

Smoking and Obesity Can Cause Your Hippocampus to Shrink

If you, or someone you know, needs another reason to quit smoking—add cognitive decline to the list. Researchers have found that smoking may cause your hippocampus to shrink and reduce cognitive function.

According to Charles DeCarli, MD, with the University of California at Davis in Sacramento, "People with diabetes in middle age lost brain volume in the hippocampus (measured indirectly using a surrogate marker) at a faster rate than those without diabetes. Smokers lost brain volume overall and in the hippocampus at a faster rate than non-smokers."

The 2011 study published in Neurology found that people who were obese at middle age were more likely to be in the top 25 percent of those with the fastest rate of decline in test scores of executive function.  DeCarli says, "Our findings provide evidence that identifying these risk factors early in people of middle age could be useful in screening people for at-risk dementia and encouraging people to make changes to their lifestyle before it's too late."

People with a high waist-to-hip ratio were more likely to have faster decrease in their brain volume. "These factors appeared to cause the brain to lose volume, to develop lesions secondary to presumed vascular injury, and also appeared to affect its ability to plan and make decisions as quickly as 10 years later," says DeCarli.  

The study found that people with high blood pressure developed white matter hyperintensities, or small areas of vascular brain damage, which resulted in lower scores on tests for executive function, or planning and decision making, corresponding to five and eight years of chronological aging respectively.

Conclusion  

Making smart lifestyle choices everyday will improve your mind and body. What's good for your health is good for your head. You can improve cardiovascular health and cognitive function through regular aerobic activity. Exercising for just 20 minutes a day – most days of the week – will stimulate brain growth though neurogenesis and improve executive function. 

Reducing risk factors that lead to heart disease is something you can control. If you're a smoker, smoking cessation is the most important lifestyle change you can make. Smoking cessation isn't just about preventing cancer, stroke, or heart disease. Smoking causes brain damage and reduces cognitive function. Please become a non-smoker today!

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

more...

Subscribe to The Athlete's Way

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?