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:
- Washington, D.C.
- Washington State
- New Jersey
- New Hampshire
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.
Other experts say there is no solid consensus about what "brain health" actually means. Some, like Martek's team of scientists, see it as maintaining cognitive function and reducing the risk of long-term neurological diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. Others see it from a neurological standpoint and stress the importance of keeping the brain's "network membranes" healthy, because the membranes are the mechanism by which the brain carries out most of its electrochemical communication.
"We used to think of the brain as a machine, with Part A doing Function A and Part B doing Function B," says James Giordano, director of the Center for Neurotechnology Studies at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va., which provides analysis, public advocacy, and private funding for neurotechnology research. "But the brain is actually a bidirectional hierarchical network. We can't say that one particular brain area 'does something.' " In other words, each area of the brain participates with the rest of it to evoke different levels of sensation, cognition, emotion, and consciousness.
Medical experts also define brain health in terms of the brain's ability to learn new things or to perform certain behavioral tasks.
What you can do. Although there may not be a clear definition of what brain health is, there is plenty you can do to keep your brain healthy. U.S. News has covered this aspect of fighting the effects of aging. Lifestyle habits also can help boost your brain smarts.
Medical experts recommend 30 minutes of physical activity a day; teaching the brain new things by playing games, learning new languages, or taking up hobbies; and eating a diet rich in brain-enhancing nutrients—including omega-3s—and fruits and vegetables.
But taking too much omega-3 or other nutritious foods such as almonds or flaxseed oil, could pose a health risk, experts say.
David Perlmutter, a neurologist and expert in the field of nutritional influences in neurological disorders, praises the index but says it leaves out two key tests that people should take to assess their risk of two cognitive ailments. One is a homocysteine blood test, which he says can indicate risk for Alzheimer's disease. The other, he says, is sensitivity to gluten, also known as celiac disease.
"For people that are gluten sensitive, if they eat gluten-containing foods, which are wheat, barley, and rye, it can be a strong cause of dementia," Perlmutter says.
The index's Web site includes a quiz that will test your own brain health and offers individualized recommendations for what you can do to improve it. In addition, it has a U.S. map with easy-to-access information on the reasons behind each state's "brain health" ranking.
The index also identifies the nation's 10 least brain-healthy states.