Hem » Articles » Health » Optimizing Brain Health: Practical Steps for a Fulfilling Life

In our last article, we discussed the importance of maintaining a healthy brain, especially as we age. Aging is the main factor linked to dementia and although we cannot stop aging, there are practical steps we can take to optimize our brain health and decrease the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (AD). This aligns with NEM’s vision to create a world where all people live longer without age-related disease, as we prioritize preventative measures to mitigate risk factors. This article will focus on the factors affecting brain health and provide useful tips for optimizing brain health and minimizing the likelihood of developing brain-related chronic diseases.

It is important to note that understanding the risk factors and implementing these tips can not only reduce the risk of AD but also contribute to immediate improvements in cognitive and overall health, providing tangible benefits both now and in the long term. 

If you missed our introduction to brain health you can find it here

Different factors influence brain health and many of the factors that influence overall health are relevant to brain health. This article highlights factors that influence brain health, focusing on those we believe hold the greatest significance and are within our power to change. 

Physical exercise for optimizing brain health

There is a strong link between regular physical exercise and cognitive brain health (1). Animal and human studies have shown that exercise brings positive effects on cognition through a variety of mechanisms. These mechanisms include (1): 

  • changes in brain size and connections
  • improved blood flow in the brain
  • increased flexibility of connections between nerve cells 
  • the formation of new nerve cells
  • the regulation of nourishing factors in the brain.

Exercise has many benefits and is considered a “pill” for many diseases and a “vaccine” for cardiovascular disease (2). But if it is a “pill”, what dose should we take? According to the latest Guidelines of the World Health Organization, adults aged 18-64 should (3): 

  • Exercise at least 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, or a combination of both, weekly. 
  • Do strength training targeting major muscle groups 2 or more days a week at moderate or greater intensity for added health benefits.  
  • Do more physical activity, when possible, especially if leading a sedentary lifestyle. 

If you want to learn more about the effect of exercise on health discover our articles: 

VO2 Max: Predictor for Longevity and Cardiovascular Health 

Exercise snacking

The connection between physical activity and cardiovascular well-being 

Diet for optimizing brain health

Several studies show correlations between dietary patterns and the occurrence of AD, indicating diet is an important modifiable risk factor (1). These studies have indicated that differences in nutrition can accelerate or prevent the neurodegeneration observed in AD. 

Here we will discuss the commonly studied diets and their effect on brain health: the Western diet, the Mediterranean diet, the DASH (Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension), and intermittent fasting (1). 

The Western diet

The Western diet significantly impacts brain health, contributing to harmful processes such as neuroinflammation and insulin resistance, both connected to Alzheimer’s disease (1). This diet can lead to insulin signaling problems, which can contribute to the formation of harmful brain plaques. It can also cause inflammation in the brain by disrupting gut bacteria balance and producing harmful substances. Additionally, it increases overall inflammation, affects brain insulin sensitivity, and reduces important brain nutrients, all of which can impair cognitive function and advance Alzheimer’s disease. Although very common this diet is not recommended for brain health. 

The Mediterranean diet and the DASH

In contrast to the Western diet, studies show that the Mediterranean diet and the DASH,  have been associated with reduced cognitive decline (1). The Mediterranean diet is based on a high content of plant-based foods, fish, olive oil, and is low in red meat and poultry, and has been linked to neuroprotective effects(8). The high contents of polyunsaturated fatty acids, polyphenols, and antioxidants in the Mediterranean diet are believed to contribute to these beneficial effects. Several population-based studies have demonstrated that adherence to the Mediterranean diet results in a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and improved cognition (8). Similarly, the DASH includes high consumption of vegetables, fruits, low-fat dairy products, whole grains, lean meats, fish, poultry, beans, and nuts while limiting sodium intake. It has been shown to lower blood pressure, lower LDL-C levels, and reduce overall cardiovascular risk.  Both diets are considered healthy and recommended for brain health (8).

Learn more about nutrition and health: 

Heart healthy diets 

Sugar effect on health and appearance

Intermittent fasting

In addition to specific diets, some studies suggest that intermittent fasting is also beneficial for brain health (4). Studies on animals have shown that intermittent fasting can help protect brain cells by reducing neuron degeneration, improving motor function, and decreasing brain damage in stroke cases. This protection is achieved through the activation of certain pathways that increase the production of supportive factors, proteins aiding cell function, and antioxidant enzymes. Intermittent fasting also appears to reduce inflammation in the brain, aiding recovery from traumatic and ischemic injuries. Additionally, intermittent fasting has been linked to improved recovery in the movement ability of rats after spinal cord injuries, suggesting its potential in safeguarding the central nervous system against such injuries.

Learn more about intermittent fasting:

Introduction to intermittent fasting

Diet tips for optimizing brain health

– Increase consumption of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean protein

– Reduce consumption of saturated fats, sodium, refined carbohydrates, and sugar-sweetened beverages.  

At NEM, we suggest various diets to our clients, emphasizing that each person’s ideal diet is the one they can consistently follow and enjoy. With several dietary options available, we refrain from promoting a specific one, considering the importance of personal preference. Nutritional studies face limitations, making it challenging to thoroughly examine how diet impacts human health. Additionally, it’s essential to consider individual factors and medical history when exploring dietary regimens. This ensures informed choices aligned with optimal health and well-being. While additional research is needed for a comprehensive understanding, current evidence suggests the potential benefits of the Mediterranean diet, DASH, and intermittent fasting for brain health.  

Feeding the Brain: How Hunger Keeps Us Sharp?

The idea that hunger helps keep our brains sharp is rooted in how our brains evolved, as explained in the article “Lifelong Brain Health is a Lifelong Challenge: From Evolutionary Principles to Empirical Evidence” by Mark P. Mattson (2). This evolutionary perspective suggests that our brains work best when faced with challenges like exercise, occasional food scarcity, and social activities (2). Evolution favored individuals and species that were adept at outsmarting their prey and competitors in the struggle for limited food sources. That results in a brain that is geared for high levels of motivation and optimal sensory-motor and cognitive function during hunger and food scarcity. Think hungry lion chasing prey or our human ancestors, who had to expend considerable effort to catch and kill prey. There is evidence of the positive impact of intermittent fasting and regular physical activity on cognitive function, especially as we age (2). In contrast, a sedentary lifestyle may contribute to health issues that affect the brain.

In conclusion, the evolutionary perspective suggests that embracing challenges like hunger, exercise, and mental engagement is key to maintaining optimal brain health throughout life.

Intellectual engagement and mental stimulation for optimizing brain health

Mental stimulation has been shown to have a positive impact on brain health, particularly in older adults. It has been reported that engaging in mentally stimulating activities can delay the development of cognitive impairment (4). 

Learning new skills may improve cognitive ability. For example, one study found that older adults who learned quilting or digital photography had more memory improvement than those who only socialized or did less cognitively demanding activities (5).

Other research suggests that engagement in activities such as music, theater, dance, and creative writingcould improve quality of life and well-being in older adults, from better memory and self-esteem to reduced stress and increased social interaction (6).

Some activities for mental stimulation include:

  • Learning new skills
  • Find a hobby
  • Engage in activities such as music, theatre, and creative writing
  • Read books, magazines
  • Play games
  • Take or teach a class
  • Work or volunteer
  • Get social interaction 

Be aware that the evidence supporting the notion that playing specific computer and online games can enhance memory and cognitive abilities is still lacking. As of now, there is insufficient evidence to indicate that commercially available computer-based brain training programs yield the same effects on cognitive functions as the training from clinically controlled studies (6).

Social engagement and connection to others for optimizing brain health

Stay connected with others can keep the brain active and help with feelings of loneliness, and isolation. Moreover, studies show that when people engage in activities they find meaningful and productive with others, they seem to have improved well-being and cognitive function (6). Some things that can help staying connected to others are:

  • Connect with family and friends
  • Volunteer for a local organization 
  • Join a book club or a group focused on a hobby
  • Join a group exercise class

Stress effect on brain health

Stress is a natural part of life, and short-term stress can even make us motivated to take action and perform better. Chronic stress, on the other hand, can change the brain, affect memory, and increase the risk for Alzheimer’s and related dementias (7). Some things that can help in managing stress are:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Go for a walk, especially in nature 
  • Try relaxation techniques
  • Practice mindfulness 
  • Try breathing exercises
  • Practise gratitude 

Learn more about stress:

How stress impacts your life

Measure your stress objectively through blood biomarkers

It is now possible to analyze validated biomarkers that the central nervous system releases during fatigue syndrome and long-term chronic stress. Contact us to discover more contact@nem.health  

Sleep for optimizing brain health

The relationship between sleep and brain health is significant, as sleep plays a crucial role in sustaining brain functions across the lifespan (8). Adequate sleep is fundamental for maintaining cognitive performance and overall brain health. Several studies have highlighted the impact of sleep on brain health, showing that insufficient or poor-quality sleep is associated with negative consequences for brain health (8). Sleeping less and experiencing sleep problems are connected to an increased risk of dementia and a decrease in the thickness of the outer layer of the brain, particularly on the right side of the temporal cortex. Moreover, data showed that duration of sleep shorter than 6 hours predicted a higher risk of dementia.  Additionally, sleep disturbances, such as increased awakenings and temperature discomfort, were linked to a reduction in the thickness of specific brain regions (8). Insufficient sleep can also disrupt the glymphatic system, which is responsible for clearing waste from the brain, ultimately affecting brain health (8).

In summary, the connection between sleep and brain health is complex, emphasizing the significance of getting sufficient and high-quality sleep to maintain optimal brain function and cognitive performance.

Get adequate sleep each night for optimal brain health (9). 

We already discussed in detail how to achieve good quality sleep in our article on sleep and heart health. Some of the highlights for high-quality sleep are: 

  • Keep a consistent sleep schedule
  • Set a bedtime that allows at least 7-8 hours of sleep
  • Create a soothing bedtime routine.
  • Make your bedroom quiet and relaxing.
  • Turn off electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime. 
  • Avoid consumption of caffeine and alcohol before bedtime.

Learn more about improving sleep:

Improving sleep and cardiovascular health

At NEM, we understand how important good sleep is for your health. We take a personalized approach to help you improve your sleep. If you utilize wearables as part of our approach, we look at your sleep habits and give you advice tailored to your needs to help you sleep better. We focus on things like sticking to regular sleep times, having calming bedtime routines, and making sure your sleep environment is just right.

Overall physical health and brain health-related factors

Taking care of overall physical health is important for brain health too. The risk factors that influence heart health are also closely associated with cognitive impairment and dementia. And because many of these risks are modifiable, it may be possible to maintain brain health and prevent dementia in later life (9). 

We already discussed the risk factors for cardiovascular disease here


Cholesterol is believed to play a significant role in brain health (9). It is associated with cognitive function and has been suggested to have an impact on neurological health in later life. Multiple studies have shown a relationship between higher midlife serum cholesterol and an increased risk of AD and vascular dementia in the future. While the exact mechanisms behind these associations are still being explored, there is evidence supporting the impact of cholesterol levels on brain health.

Blood sugar

The relationship between blood sugar and brain health is multifaceted and dynamic. Elevated or uncontrolled blood sugar levels, often associated with conditions like diabetes, have been linked to cognitive impairment and an increased risk of dementia (9). Fasting blood glucose levels below 100 mg/dL were proposed as one of the metrics for defining optimal brain health.

Blood pressure

Elevated blood pressure has been linked to cognitive dysfunction and decline, as well as dementia (9). Several studies have associated midlife hypertension or high systolic blood pressure with cognitive dysfunction, decline, and dementia. Additionally, the impact of hypertension on cognition and dementia may depend on age, severity, and cumulative time of exposure.

At NEM, we focus on healthy longevity, which includes measuring biomarkers that are not typically assessed in the standard healthcare system, especially for healthy individuals under 65. We believe that taking care of overall physical health is crucial for brain health as well. For example, cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure levels play a significant role in brain health, as well as cardiovascular and metabolic health. By monitoring and managing these biomarkers, we can potentially reduce the risk of cognitive decline and promote brain health, and overall health, in the long run.  

Learn how cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure affect your heart health:

Risk factors and cardiovascular health 

In conclusion, prioritizing brain health is crucial, especially as we age. While we cannot stop the aging process, we can adopt practical measures to reduce the risk of dementia and AD. This article emphasized key factors within our control, offering useful tips for minimizing these risks. Physical exercise stands out as a potent “pill” for overall health, including brain health, supported by various studies and global health guidelines. The Mediterranean and DASH diets, along with intermittent fasting, emerge as dietary choices linked to cognitive well-being.

At NEM, our approach begins with measuring objective biomarkers, such as blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar. By meticulously analyzing a spectrum of validated biomarkers released by the central nervous system, including those associated with fatigue syndrome and enduring chronic stress, we aim to offer a nuanced understanding of your stress profile and its impact on brain health. Through this multifaceted approach, we strive not only to quantify stress but also to provide actionable insights into optimizing your well-being and cognitive function.

Additionally, we conduct genetic tests and health questionnaires to gather comprehensive data about each individual’s health status and risk factors for cognitive decline. With this information, we create a personalized health plan tailored to each person’s unique needs and goals.

We offer guidance and assistance with physical exercise, stress management, improving sleep quality, and enhancing mental stimulation and social connection. Importantly, we track the changes over time to see how our clients respond to the interventions. This allows us to adjust the health plan as needed and ensure progress toward optimal brain health.

We understand that prevention is fundamental to maintaining well-being, and we are dedicated to supporting our clients on their path to a healthy and fulfilling life.

Silviya Demerzhan, Ph.D.

Chief Scientific Officer, Nordic Executive Medicine
Medical review by: Dr. Mahir Vazda MD

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  2. Exercise effects on cardiovascular disease: from basic aspects to clinical evidence | Cardiovascular Research | Oxford Academic [Internet]. [cited 2024 Jan 10]. Available from: https://academic.oup.com/cardiovascres/article/118/10/2253/6363794
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  6. National Institute on Aging [Internet]. 2019 [cited 2024 Jan 24]. Participating in the arts creates paths to healthy aging. Available from: https://www.nia.nih.gov/news/participating-arts-creates-paths-healthy-aging
  7. McEwen BS. Neurobiological and Systemic Effects of Chronic Stress. Chronic Stress. 2017 Apr 10;1:2470547017692328. 
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  9. Gorelick P, Furie K, Iadecola C, Smith EE, Waddy SP, Lloyd‐Jones D, et al. Defining Optimal Brain Health in Adults: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association. Stroke. 2017;