Want to Keep Your Brain Healthy and Your Memory Sharp? There's One Blood Test You Should Get ASAP

Woman over 50 receiving blood test to help protect her brain health

It probably goes without saying that we should all do everything we can to protect our brain health. This is particularly important as we get older, as our brains go through some significant changes as we age.

A study by the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health found that our brains start to shrink as early as our 30s and 40s, and areas of the brain associated with cognitive function are impacted most. So, what can you do to protect your brain from the impact of aging? 

Related: The One Thing You Should Never, Ever Eat if You Want To Protect Your Brain Health

Factors That Impact Your Brain Health

According to the Cleveland Clinic, the six lifestyle factors that play the biggest role in our brain health are physical exercise, food/nutrition, medical health, sleep, mental fitness and social interaction. 

The good news is that there are many ways you can make positive changes in virtually all of those areas, which in turn may support better brain health in the long run. 

Dr. Charles Bernick, MD
, staff neurologist at Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, says several lifestyle interventions are strongly associated with better long-term brain health. They include:

  • Regular exercise of moderate intensity, aiming for 150 min a week (30 minutes a day at least five days a week)

  • Following a Mediterranean-style diet

  • Staying mentally active and engaged

  • Maintaining a good sleep pattern

Related: Here’s What Impact Daily Word Games Actually Have On Your Brain Health, a Neurologist Explains

Medical Tests That Can Be Relevant to Brain Health

Not surprisingly, overall medical health and brain health are strongly connected. In this case, knowledge is power. The more well-informed you are about medical issues that could impact your brain, the easier it is to plan a strategy to improve your brain health or reduce your risk of conditions that affect your cognitive functions.

Dr. Bernick says the type of information that’s relevant to brain health which can be detected in blood falls into in two categories:

  1. Identification of general health conditions that can affect brain function. “This includes monitoring for disorders in thyroid, liver or kidney function, vitamin deficiencies, autoimmune or infectious processes, among others,” he explains.

  2. Assessing for primary brain disorders. “With the availability of technologies that can detect minute levels of proteins that leak out of the brain, we can now measure in blood the characteristic proteins of Alzheimer's disease: beta-amyloid and tau,” says Dr. Bernick. “These blood tests appear to correlate with other established diagnostic tests for Alzheimer's disease. Furthermore, we can screen for several less common neurological diseases through genetic testing done on blood.”

The Most Important Blood Test for Brain Health

While more sophisticated tests focused on proteins associated with conditions like Alzheimer’s can provide valuable information for those at risk of those conditions, these tests aren’t always recommended for or available to everyone.

Doctors say your best bet is usually to start with more common blood tests for conditions that affect a large number of people—and, more importantly, are often either preventable or treatable.

When focusing on brain health, the best place to start is with a blood test that checks for diabetes. In addition, it’s a good idea also to get your cholesterol checked.

“Vascular health is critical to the brain,” says Dr. Victoria S. Pelak, MD, FAAN, FANA, Professor of Neurology and Ophthalmology, Vice Chair Faculty Affairs and Promotions, Department of Neurology, University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. “The primary care doctor can order age-appropriate blood work that targets vascular health, such as blood work for diabetes and cholesterol.”

To check for diabetes, you have a couple of options. “Blood tests for diabetes include measures of your blood sugar on the day of the test and/or a blood test that evaluates the average blood sugar in the blood over the past three months,” says Dr. Pelak. 

A third test that can also provide valuable information related to brain health is one to check your vitamin B12 levels. “Vitamin B12 is an important vitamin to measure, and it can be low despite a good diet, or it can be low with diets that limit or eliminate poultry or red meat, for instance,” says Dr. Pelak. “Vitamin B12 is important for nerve cells, and severe deficiency of B12 can lead to cognitive impairment.”

How Blood Tests Can Help You Protect Your Brain Health

All of these tests reveal conditions that could put your brain health at risk—and in many cases, they can alert you to issues while there’s still time for you to make lifestyle changes that can make a difference.

“Blood tests for diabetes and cholesterol help determine whether treatment is needed to keep your blood sugar and cholesterol within normal limits,” says Dr. Pelak. “Abnormal blood sugar can present before a person develops diabetes, and learning about it early can help get blood sugar under control before blood vessels are damaged. Similarly, cholesterol levels are important for maintaining healthy blood vessels. High cholesterol and diabetes can lead to plaque formation in blood vessels that are in the brain. When those are damaged, cognitive impairment can occur and these factors can diminish brain health.” 

Dr. Pelak adds that vitamin B12 “is important for healthy nerve function, and it is also associated with decreased mood and depression when a deficiency exists.” 

Related: This Super Common Issue Could Increase Your Dementia Risk, According to Neurologists—Here's How to Prevent It 

Consult with Your Doctor to Discuss Which Tests You Need

Talk to your doctor about which brain health tests might be appropriate for you, since everyone’s situation differs. “The type of blood tests ordered should be individualized based on the patient's symptoms, medical and family history,” says Dr. Bernick. “In general, the physician or advanced practice provider will obtain blood tests that include a comprehensive metabolic panel, blood count, thyroid function, and vitamin B12 level. Additional tests might be ordered on a case-specific basis.”

Next up, find out the #1 brain cancer symptom most people miss, according to a neurologist and oncologist.