Not every state in the union can be full of geniuses, right? At least that's what, at first glance, one might conclude after seeing the results of the "life'sDHA Index of Brain Health," an assessment that ranks all 50 states and the District of Columbia according to what its creators consider to be factors supporting brain health.
Washington, D.C., and nine brain-healthy states made the top 10 list. Here are the 10 lowest-ranking states: Indiana, North Dakota, South Carolina, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Oklahoma, and, in dead last, Louisiana.
The brain health evaluations, performed by researchers at Martek Biosciences Corp., were determined through an analysis of third-party data on the diet, physical health, mental health, and social well-being of the residents of each state.
"The results show that the majority of the top-10-ranked states border or are near the Atlantic or Pacific oceans," says Michael Roizen, author and adviser to the Martek index. "One hypothesis is the accessibility of fish with its healthy fats and protein." Martek manufactures products fortified with DHA, a form of health-promoting omega-3 fat found naturally in certain fish.
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Louisiana, the "least brainy" state, tied with Mississippi and Utah for the highest rate of involvement in religious and spiritual activities—something Martek considers a positive indicator for brain health. That measure determined 5 percent of each state's total brain health score. In addition to its low sales of fish and DHA-fortified foods, and moderately low fruit and vegetable consumption rates, the Bayou State, along with Kentucky, has the lowest breast-feeding rate in the nation. Breast-feeding naturally provides DHA omega-3, which Martek's report on the index cites as "important for brain development of infants."
Outside medical experts are hesitant to put too much stock in the rankings but still recognize their significance.
"If you spent your entire life in Louisiana and you move to New Hampshire, next thing you know are you going to be 'brain healthy'? Of course not," says James Giordano, director of the Center for Neurotechnology Studies at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va.
But, he says, "I think what the researchers are saying is [high-ranked states] are the states where we find a number of different factors, in combination, that have the potential to contribute to a healthier brain."
David Perlmutter, a neurologist, points out that many of the states with the highest obesity rates are ranked among the least brain healthy. In the calculations that produced the index, a high obesity rate counted against a state.
"The fundamentals of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's are damaging inflammatory chemicals in the brain," he says. So being overweight or having diabetes, both of which contribute to inflammation in the body, sets a person up for these diseases, he says.
Interestingly, a closer look at how various states fare on the individual measures of brain health might weaken the authority of the rankings.
For example, Washington State, the third-best brain-healthy state in the country, also has one of the highest rates of deaths due to Alzheimer's disease. And somewhat bizarrely, Louisiana, the country's least brain-healthy state, had one of the lowest incidences of "poor mental health days," according to data compiled by Martek.
It's important to note that a state's score on each of the 21 brain health indicators was weighted against the national average. And on some metrics, like sleep, no state does well, Roizen says. So just because D.C. and Mississippi, for instance, received top marks on sleep, that doesn't mean people there get eight hours of shut-eye a night.