If you sometimes find it difficult to concentrate or experience the occasional "senior moment," don't be too hard on yourself. It might just be the state you live in.
To raise awareness about the state of the nation's "brain health" and to encourage people to take action toward improving their own brain function, researchers released an index in June that purports to rank the "brain smarts" of all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Diet represented 36 percent of each state's score. Of several factors used to calculate the brain-healthfulness of the foods each state eats, sales of fish and DHA-fortified foods were weighed most heavily; they made up 10 percent and 12 percent, respectively, of the diet score. Measures of the population's physical health accounted for 25 percent of each state's overall score; mental health accounted for 24 percent; and social well-being 15 percent. In all, 21 measures went into calculating each score. The creators of the index examined existing data on these metrics for all the states and the District of Columbia. The data came from agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
You don't have to be a genius to understand why the index, dubbed the "life'sDHA Index of Brain Health," was based partly on DHA consumption. Its developer and sponsor, Martek Biosciences Corp., produces dietary supplements and products rich in DHA omega-3 fatty acids, including the life'sDHA brand. Studies suggest omega-3s can be important to healthy brain development. (Read up on the benefits of and 11 easy ways to load up onomega-3s.) Omega-3s come in three varieties: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
"Our goal was to draw attention to the fact that your brain health isn't solely genetic—that you get to modify it," says Michael Roizen, a doctor of internal medicine and anesthesiology, author, and adviser for the index.
The District of Columbia was at the top of the pack, thanks to the high amounts of fish and DHA omega-3-fortified foods and supplements consumed there, the quantity of fruits and vegetables its residents eat, and the fact that many of the capital's residents are bookworms. (Interestingly, Alaska tied with D.C. in the rate at which residents read for personal interest.)
Also receiving high marks were Connecticut (ranked fifth brainiest overall), thanks in part to the quality of its education system; Massachusetts (ranked seventh), for its high rates of health insurance coverage; and New Jersey (ranked eighth), for having one of the lowest rates of psychological distress in the nation. The complete top 10:
Medical experts who are unaffiliated with the index echoed the importance of taking proactive, preventive steps to protect brain function, but some pointed out that Martek might have a special interest in promoting DHA omega-3.
"It's curious that they're focusing on DHA," says John Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He cites studies that suggest another kind of omega-3, EPA, may be more important to brain health than DHA. Yet DHA—better known for its heart-health benefits than its brain-boosting powers—was the only form of omega-3 that factored into the index's methodology.
Elizabeth Zelinski, a professor of gerontology and psychology at the University of Southern California, says the behaviors most prized by the index—a proper diet and aerobic exercise—are certainly factors in vascular health. But whether an absence of those healthful behaviors contributes independently to cognitive problems is another issue, she says.
Still, she says, "vascular health and healthy brain function are very much connected. The brain gets everything it needs to function—oxygen, glucose, the removal of waste—from the vascular system, so it does make sense" that the index considers those behaviors.