Research from the Center for Healthy Aging yields guidance on brain health

Tom Joudrey
April 22, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Research underway at Penn State’s Center for Healthy Aging is providing new insights into brain health across the lifespan and helping to isolate the risk factors associated with dementia. Considered in concert with data from peer institutions, the studies are helping to inform public outreach about proactive measures people can take to keep their brains healthy.

Martin Sliwinski, director of the center and Gregory H. Wolf Professor in Healthy Aging and Human Development, said that, hereditary factors notwithstanding, up to 40% of dementia cases are preventable.

Last month, Sliwinski appeared in the College of Health and Human Development’s Research in Action virtual series, where he sketched the state of research and offered practical tips for managing brain health. A recording of the program is available for viewing.

“When it comes to brain health, no fate is written in stone by genetics,” Sliwinski said. “How we behave can and does impact how our brain’s age and the rate at which neurodegeneration takes place. Each of us has the potential to strengthen our brain resiliency, and that’s why everything we do at the center is ultimately geared to empowering everyone — not just doctors and experts but our families and neighbors — to optimize brain health across the lifespan.”

According to Sliwinski, the stakes for taking action are high. Dementia can lead to problems with short-term memory, learning, and spatial navigation, and these symptoms, once progressed, can interfere with everyday activities and personal independence. While drugs such as Aricept and Exelon can help to control and slow the progression of symptoms, there are currently no FDA-approved preventative treatments that address the underlying disease. That’s why focusing on lifestyle is currently the most promising path to reducing the risk of brain degeneration.

Sliwinski pointed to a 2020 study from the "Lancet" Commission, which mapped a complex interplay of factors that make us more prone to developing dementia. Lack of education early in life plays a role. In mid-life, obesity, alcohol use, uncontrolled hypertension, traumatic brain injury, and untreated hearing loss aggravate risk. After age 65, a new set of factors come into play. Diabetes, air pollution, smoking, physical inactivity, depression, and social isolation all boost the susceptibility profile.

Sliwinski emphasized that neurodegenerative delay can be strengthened by smart decisions with regard to nutrition and stress management. The typical western diet, with its high levels of saturated fats and hydrogenated oil, raise the risk of cognitive impairment. By contrast, the Mediterranean diet, rich in green leafy vegetables, berries, fish, poultry, beans, nuts, and olive oil, has been shown to help stave off brain disease. Even modest changes can make a difference.

Stress is another crucial factor. Sliwinski led a study in which his team measured stress levels across 30 days in a sample of people over the age of 70. He then tracked their brain health over seven years, ultimately finding that people with high stress that lasted one month exhibited double the risk of cognitive impairment. Often, Sliwinski explained, stress itself can be unavoidable, but we can blunt its impact by practicing mindfulness, seeking social support, volunteering to help others, and exposing ourselves to the therapeutic effects of nature.

Education and outreach lie at the core the center’s mission, and Sliwinski hopes to leverage advances in digital communication brought about by the pandemic to reach new audiences. “Everyone must contend with the effects of aging, and the better we understand this complex process, the better equipped we all are to make healthy choices and face the future with confidence,” he said.

To view future presentations from the Center for Healthy Aging, members of the State College community and beyond can attend the Healthy Aging Community Lecture Series, which offers topics and content translated from current research findings about healthy aging. The online lectures are structured to connect faculty expertise with community members to make sense of science for everyday use and living. Visit the schedule of events for more information. To learn more broadly about the research and wellness advocacy coming out of the Center for Healthy Aging, visit healthyaging.psu.edu.

Last Updated April 26, 2021