Most people want to age gracefully. For many people, this means remaining physically fit into old age. But what about our mental fitness?

Impaired memory, judgment and other brain functions are often referred to as Dementia. Alzheimer's disease and other types of Dementia associated with old age can be devastating for people and their families. Dementia is too often thought of as a natural part of the aging process. Most of us know that our physical health can be influenced by factors such as diet and exercise, but we may be misled to think that mental decline is just a part of aging.

It is true that many people have genetic factors that increase the risk for Alzheimer's or other types of Dementia. However, there is growing evidence that there are lifestyle changes that can actually slow the mental aging process. And the good news is that these recommendations may already be familiar to us. Let's look at what these recommendations are.

Lower your risk for chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes

It's well known that chronic diseases such as diabetes can negatively impact our physical well-being and lead to physical disability if not treated. But research suggests that these diseases may actually decrease mental health, as well. Studies have shown that people with high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes are at increased risk for mental decline as they age when compared to people without these conditions. Lack of exercise, low intake of fruits and vegetables, and being overweight or obese can increase the risk for all of these conditions.

It is important to check with your doctor regularly to see if you have any of these diseases and conditions. Eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, and whole grains, maintaining a healthy weight and exercising regularly may help to prevent diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Maintain a Healthy Body Weight
A healthy body weight may also help to slow or prevent dementia. BMI is a comparison of your height to your weight and can help to predict health risk for many people. One study suggested that obese people (those with a BMI >30 kg/m2) have a 74% greater risk of dementia than those people with a healthy body weight (BMI of 19 -- 25 kg/m2). People who are overweight (BMI >25) are also at increased risk..

If you are unsure of whether your body weight is healthy you can visit to calculate your BMI. If you want to lose weight but don't know how, visiting a Registered Dietitian is a good place to start.

Eat more Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Research also shows that higher intakes of omega-3 fatty acids may help to slow or prevent dementia. Studies suggest that both higher intakes of omega-3 fatty acids and fish can lower the risk for mental decline. Good sources of omega-3's include fatty fish like salmon and sardines, and plant oils like flax seed oil (linseed oil). DHA, a type of omega-3 found in fish and algae, may actually help to protect the brain. In order to get these protective benefits, you need to eat about 200 mg per day. The average daily intake of DHA in the U.S is less than half this amount. You can help to increase your DHA intake by consuming the recommended 8 oz of fish per week or more. If you don't want to (or can't) eat fish, you can purchase fish oil supplements or those made from algae at most grocery and drug stores.

Eat your fruits and Vegetables
While omega-3 fatty acids can help prevent or delay of dementia, they have been found to be more effective when used with antioxidants. Antioxidants help our bodies to prevent damage caused by our environments and lifestyle. Antioxidants include vitamins A, C, and E as well as other nutrients found in fruits and vegetables. You can ensure that you're getting enough of these nutrients by eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. For example, carrots and sweet potatoes are good sources of vitamin A. Kale and collard greens are good sources of vitamin E. Strawberries and kiwi are good sources of vitamin C.

Make sure you get enough Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is found in all animal products, including meats, dairy, fish and eggs. It is also found in many fortified foods, including breakfast cereals. However, as we age, our body's ability to absorb B12 is decreased. This puts older people at risk for a B12 deficiency, which can cause Dementia-like symptoms. Some of these symptoms are permanent. If you are found to have a B12 deficiency, your doctor may prescribe a B12 supplement for you. However, by consuming a varied and balanced diet, most people should be able to consume adequate B12 from food. Vegetarians and vegans are at increased risk for B12 deficiency, and may need to consider a dietary supplement.

Studies also suggest that being physically active during middle age can reduce the risk for dementia in old age. Studies show that 150 minutes of aerobic exercise (such as running and walking) per week helps protect mental function. Exercise may also decrease age-related brain shrinkage and improve memory. Walking for 30 minutes five days per week is a simple way to help protect your brain.

Putting it all together:
If you think that this advice to stay mentally young sounds a lot like advice to stay physically young, you're right. Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, fish and plant oils. Maintain a healthy body weight and get regular exercise. Your body and your brain will thank you.

2LT Wilson is a Dietetic Intern here at WRNMMC in her second phase of the Army Graduate Program in Nutrition.