8 things you didn’t know about looking after your brain, according to a neurologist.

When it comes to prioritising ‘healthy living’, our brain health is often not even… a thought (see what I did there?). 

But it’s true, no? We may think about what we're fuelling ourselves with, or how much movement we're getting, or if we’ve got our 8 glasses of water in for the day, but how to best take care of our brain just isn’t really a factor. 

It should be though, shouldn’t it? I mean, when you think about it, the brain is the epicentre. The central control room. The largest and most complex organ of the body; manager of thoughts, memory and speech, arm and leg movements and the function of many organs within the body. 

Just as well we have the – ahem – brains of Professor Amy Brodtmann, to guide us with her expect advice in the matter. (Okay, I’ll stop – who knew I had such an arsenal of brain jokes at the ready?!)

Professor Brodtmann is a stroke and cognitive neurologist, researcher at Monash University's Central Clinical School, and an honorary medical advisor at Dementia Australia – and the first woman to hold the role. 

She talks with Mamamia during this Brain Awareness Week (13-19 March), and explains the most crucial things we all need to be doing in order to best take care of our brains – and what we can do to help reduce the risk of dementia. 

Here’s what we learned… 

1. Dementia isn’t *necessarily* genetic.

Firstly, let’s get our language right: dementia is the umbrella term which describes a collection of symptoms that affect the brain, including memory and thinking, language and problem-solving abilities. Over time, parts of the brain become damaged, which affects a person’s ability to function as they previously did. 


We’ve all heard of Alzheimer’s disease, but that’s just one of around 10 of the most common forms of dementia. According to Professor Brodtmann though, there are at least 100 different types of dementia. 

“The heart can develop heart failure, the kidneys can develop kidney failure, and the brain can develop brain failure. That’s essentially what dementia is,” she explains. 

“Just as there are lots of causes of heart failure and kidney failure, there are lots of causes of dementia.”

As for the role of genetics, for example, having a parent or grandparent with a diagnosis of dementia – doesn’t necessarily increase your risk of also experiencing a form of the disease.

“Only with some forms of dementia – like Huntington’s or Frontotemporal – is there increased risk. As for Alzheimer’s, the risk is minimal,” says Professor Brodtmann, adding that there is some evidence that suggests the risk is slightly increased if your mother has had Alzheimer’s disease.

Instead, it’s lifestyle factors which pose a greater risk. 

Indeed, it has informed the basis of Dementia Australia’s Eat.Play.Rest campaign, which aims to demonstrate how simple lifestyle changes can be adopted into your daily routine that are good for both your brain health and overall wellbeing.


2. Too little exercise is one of the greatest risk factors for dementia. 

“Being sedentary is a really, really big issue,” says Professor Brodtmann, explaining how up until the last 50 years, we as humans, were much more active than what we are now. 

“In hunter gatherer societies, we’d walk or run 11 to 19 kilometres per day. That’s what our brains are used to. That’s what we’ve evolved to do.”

Now, evidence has informed exercise guidelines for optimal brain health, and it’s more than you may think. 

“150 minutes of cardiovascular or aerobic activity per week, that’s 30 minutes huff and puff, 5 days a week.”

According to Professor Brodtmann, that could be walking to the point where you’re short of breath, running, riding a bike, swimming, or anything that’s going to get your heart rate up.

“We don’t want you to do extreme sports though,” she adds. “There is some evidence that extreme exercise is not good for either brain or heart.”

In addition to cardio exercise, resistance work is also recommended, twice each week. This could be anything that builds or maintains muscle: weights, rowing, yoga, tai chi. 

Until what age? 

“Until you die,” says Professor Brodtmann. “We don’t expect you to run a marathon in your 80s, but you can still find ways to be active.”


3. Dancing is one of the best exercises. 

When it comes to getting bang for your buck for dementia risk reduction, strong evidence shows that dancing is the MVP.

But it’s not just the physical activity itself. 

“It’s also because you’re challenging the brain by learning a new task, and there is a social aspect too.”

So, get salsa-ing or just head on down to your local Zumba class.

4. Yes, socialising is super important in also reducing your risk. 

The social isolation for some people as a result of COVID lockdowns was really profound, notes Professor Brodtmann.

“It definitely affected cognition because we are social creatures, we need that interaction.”

Loneliness and social isolation are some of the recognised risk factors in both mid and late life dementia.

While there is no data around what is considered a healthy social goal, “it would be dependent on one’s pre-existing personality." Professor Brodtmann says it’d be ideal to see another person on most days. 

Interestingly, hearing loss is also tied to the socialisation risk factor.

“Some studies show that if you treat hearing loss – you get people hearing aids and they actually wear them – you can see an improvement in their cognition because they’re hearing what’s going on and getting that social stimulation. 


“We need to have that social interaction. It's part of being human and it's part of what our brains need.”

5. The Mediterranean diet is the ultimate brain food. 

According to Professor Brodtmann, there is some very good evidence that suggests the Mediterranean approach to eating – with some modifications – is a great option for optimal brain-healthy food

Fish, high in omega 3s, is recommended 2-3 times a week, lots of vegetables, some grains, seeds and nuts and olive oil – “half a cup per day” – are key. 

“Olive oil is great because not only is it a heart healthy oil – it has perfect omega 3s that we need – but it is packed with polyphenols which are choc-full of antioxidants… Comparatively, coconut oil has zero antioxidants.”

Citing the CSIRO modifications to the Mediterranean diet, Dr Brodtmann says it effectively “reduces the risk of diabetes, which we know is bad for the brain; and normalises blood pressure, which is very good for your brain.”

“It might also improve our gut health, and by doing that we reduce the general level of inflammation in our bodies. There is now increasing evidence about inflammation in the body and the brain promoting the eventual brain failure.”

6. Quality shut-eye is important. 

Having a great sleep is a must in looking after your noggin’, with some studies showing that poor sleepers have an increased risk of dementia, says Professor Brodtmann. 

She recommends 6-8 hours of sleep daily – no more, and no less. In fact, more than 9 hours of sleep is associated with greater dementia risk in some studies, she adds. 


The key is to ensure a good quality rest: 

“No blue light after 6 or 7pm, so no devices… The only things we should be doing in bed [aside from sleep], are reading a book or having sex.”

7. Never stop learning. 

While there is currently very little evidence to suggest that mindful activities – such as, sudoku, jigsaw puzzles or reading reduce the risk factors associated with dementia – Professor Brodmann says the real imperative is to never stop learning new things.

“Acquiring new knowledge is very good for our brains.”

That could mean, anything from going to a language class, learning to play a musical instrument or joining a group to discuss current affairs. 

8. Find joy.

“We know there’s an association with mid life depression and an increased risk of dementia in later life, so doing something about our mental health is really good for our brains,” implores Professor Brodtmann. 

“Our brains function best when we are happy, when our hearts are healthy, when we’re with people, and when we’re moving.”

So, you want to prioritise your brain health, but don’t know where to start? 

Go to your doctor, and get checked for your blood pressure, cholesterol and weight, encourages Professor Brodtmann. 


“Risk factors for bad brain health are pretty much the same risk factors for bad heart health: get your blood pressure checked, and if you’ve got poor blood pressure, do something about it. Globally, that is probably the number one worst thing that we can do for our brain is to have hypertension.”

And then, get moving, she says. 

“It can be as easy as just walking to the shops, if you can.” 

While smoking cigarettes is bad for your health at any stage of life, it’s particularly detrimental to brain health after the age of 50, she says.

“Get your sleep and diet right, see a psychologist and do something about your mental health if you need to, get out there with people that you like, keep your brain stimulated with social activities, and learn new things.” 

“It’s very much up to you.”

Brain health is important for your overall wellbeing. For more brain-healthy tips, recipes and inspiration, sign up to the Eat.Play.Rest newsletter or follow on Instagram

Explore more information about Dementia Australia’s services and resources or call at any time on 1800 100 500. 

Keen to read more from Rebecca Davis? You can find her articles here, or follow her on Instagram.

Feature Image: Getty.

EAT. PLAY. REST -  an initiative of Dementia Australia
Eat.Play.Rest exists to inform anyone on how to make simple lifestyle changes to live and maintain a brain-healthy life. Any time or age is the right time to adopt brain-healthy lifestyle changes. This campaign is underpinned by a combination of research and lived experiences from people of all ages. Eat.Play.Rest is an initiative of Dementia Australia - the peak body for dementia awareness and support in Australia.