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Keeping Lungs Healthy Can Protect the Brain

lung health, quit smoking, nutrition

It is often said that what is good for the heart is often good for the brain (ie: exercise, healthy diet). You could also now say that keeping your lungs healthy now will protect your brain in the future as you age. A new study from Ohio State University has found that pulmonary function is linked to later problem-solving and the brain’s processing speed.

Charles Emery, a professor of psychology, gathered data from a study sample of 832 participants of the Swedish Adoption/Twin Study of Aging who were between 50 and 85. The study volunteers were assessed in up to seven waves of testing across 19 years.

The testing included lung function, as measured by forced expiratory volume (how much air a person can push out of the lungs in one second) and forced vital capacity (the volume that is blown out after deep inhalation. Cognitive ability was assessed in four domains associated with stored knowledge, memory, special abilities related to problem-solving and processing speed.

Reduced pulmonary function was associated with a drop in “fluid” functions, which included thinking functions and the ability to write correct responses quickly. A small effect was seen in verbal tasks as well. Pulmonary function changes, however, did not appear to impair memory of lead to any significant loss of stored knowledge.

Dr. Emery suspects the reason for lowered pulmonary function to lead to a decline in brain health is likely due to the lower availability of oxygen in the blood which in turn affects chemicals that transmit signals between brain cells.

“The logical conclusion from this is that anything you could do to maintain lung function should be of benefit to fluid cognitive performance as well,” said Dr. Emery. “Maintaining an exercise routine and stopping smoking would be two primary methods. Nutritional factors and minimizing environmental exposure to pollutants also come into play.”

Dr. Norman H. Edelman MD, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association (ALA), who was not involved with the study, concurs that if you take good care of your lungs, they will take good care of you. His top five tips for keeping lungs healthy include:

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1. Don’t smoke – ANYTHING. Smoking is hands down the worst thing you can do to your lungs on a regular basis, and there is no safe threshold – the more you smoke, the greater your risks for diseases such as lung cancer and COPD. Skip all forms of smoking, including cigarettes, pipes, cigars and marijuana. Stay clear of secondhand and thirdhand smoke as well.

2. Fight for clean air. More than 154 million Americans live in areas where air pollution is a threat to health, according to the ALA’s annual State of the Air report. You can make a difference by cutting your own contributions to air pollution, such as driving less and cutting back on electricity use.

3. Improve your indoor air. There are a number of sources, including fireplaces and wood-burning stoves, mold, pet dander, construction materials and some household products such as paint or certain cleaners that contribute to poor quality indoor air. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends eliminating sources of pollution in your home, improving ventilation, and using air cleaners that remove particulate matter. Consider also having your home checked for radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas that is the main cause of lung cancer in non-smokers.

4. Exercise more. The better your cardio-respiratory fitness, the easier it is for your lungs to keep your heart and muscles supplied with oxygen.

5. Eat Right. There is evidence that antioxidant-rich foods (foods, not supplements) are good for your lungs. A 2010 study, for example found that cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage were protective against lung cancer. The European Lung Foundations suggests eating a balanced diet with plenty of whole grains, fruit, vegetables and fish; reducing salt intake (as it can contribute to fluid retention which causes difficulty breathing in some people); and restricting intake of trans fats and saturated fats.

Other ways to protect your lungs include getting the flu shot, especially if you already have COPD or other lung problems or are 65 or older. Know the warning signs of poor lung health, which includes having a wheeze or cough for more than a month and having a difficult time breathing with little or no physical exertion. Chest pain should also be evaluated, especially if breathing in or coughing makes it worse.

Journal Reference:
C. F. Emery, D. Finkel, N. L. Pedersen. Pulmonary Function as a Cause of Cognitive Aging. Psychological Science, 2012; 23 (9): 1024 DOI:10.1177/0956797612439422

Additional Resources:
European Lung Foundation