A simple test for healthy brain function

brainAs people age, many worry about losing their mental capacities. Experts cite activities like regular physical exercise, maintaining social interactions, and cultivating hobbies like learning a musical instrument or foreign language in order to help people stave off declines in mental faculties.

A study by Japanese researchers published in the journal Stroke describes a simple physical test to help assess your brain health. The researchers asked 1,387 test subjects, whose average age was 67, to stand on one leg, with their eyes open, for as long as they could, up to one minute. They then performed brain MRI scans on the people, and had the people complete several tests of cognitive function.

The results of the test and MRI scans showed that people who could not stand on one foot longer than 20 seconds were more likely to have cerebral small vessel disease, in which tiny blood vessels deep within the brain are damaged. People who had trouble standing on one foot also tended to do poorly on the cognitive tests.

Damage or blockages to these blood vessels over time leads to small damaged areas of the brain, even though subjects may not exhibit symptoms at first. In the study, a third of subjects with more than two damaged areas of the brain had difficulty standing on one foot.

These small damaged brain areas are the result of what neurologists call “silent strokes”. Blood flow to certain parts of the brain become closed off and those parts suffer damage, though the people exhibit no symptoms. These “silent strokes” are more common in people with diabetes or hypertension. In time, these damaged areas can proliferate and lead to a decline in brain functioning, called “vascular dementia”. They can also increase the risk of a full-blown stroke.

Earlier research had found a correlation between difficulty walking and standing, and blockage of blood vessels in the brain. Researchers think this study may suggest a connection between balance and brain functioning.

However neurologists caution against concluding that difficulty with balance necessarily means you have this condition. Older people tend to have difficulty with standing and walking for a number of reasons, including less clear vision and stiffer joints. But they do recommend an evaluation by your doctor if you have significant difficulty with standing on one leg.

Overall, the habits that help keep your body healthy, such as a good diet, physical activity, and quitting smoking, are good for your brain health as well.

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