But with so many changes in our diet quality, sedentary time, and stress levels over the past 50 years, it's no surprise that contemporary lifestyles have affected our brain health. Fortunately, we can save our brains—not to mention the future ...
By Amy Shah, M.D. Integrative Medicine Doctor
July 15, 2018 — 9:25 AM
With all of the improvements in education and technology, we must be getting smarter as a society, right? As it turns out, we might actually be getting dumber. One study found that IQ scores have been falling by as much as seven points per generation. This is in stark contrast to the last century, during which there was such a steady and significant rise in IQ scores that it garnered a name: the Flynn Effect.
First detected by scientist James R. Flynn in 1978, the Flynn Effect was seen across many countries and was expected to continue its upward IQ trajectory, but Norwegian researchers think it may have already peaked. Yup, we may have already passed peak human intelligence—yikes. Analyzing over 730,000 standardized IQ test scores from 1970 to 2009, the study found a steady decline in IQ averaging about 0.03 points less each year.
What could account for the sudden downturn in average IQ scores? It's hard to tell exactly. But with so many changes in our diet quality, sedentary time, and stress levels over the past 50 years, it's no surprise that contemporary lifestyles have affected our brain health.
Fortunately, we can save our brains—not to mention the future intelligence of our species—by simply modifying our habits and lifestyle. Here are six easy changes that can help boost cognitive health and improve IQ:
1. Sleep more.
Many studies have found a direct correlation between sleep, productivity, and intelligence. A good night's sleep gives your brain a chance to recharge, store memories, and strengthen neural connections. According to the CDC, more than one-third of Americans consistently do not get enough sleep, increasing their risk for chronic disease and cognitive decline. I suggest aiming for around eight hours of restful sleep per night, and up to 12 for growing kids.
2. Eat your vegetables.
Eat eight servings of vegetables every single day. Vegetables, leafy greens especially, contain key nutrients that boost brain health. I recommend trying to eat locally grown organic vegetables from healthy soil when possible, but really any vegetable is a good one. Overall a healthy diet full of fruits, vegetables, good fats, and lean proteins will keep your brain functioning in tiptop shape.
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3. Turn to supplements.
Although it is best to get all of our vitamins and minerals from whole food sources, sometimes supplementation is necessary. Some nutrients may be hard to absorb, especially for older adults and those on medications, and restrictive diets may not provide all of the necessary nutrients. This means you may be missing out on crucial vitamins that support your brain and overall health. Check in with your doctor about whether you should be incorporating more supplements into your routine. Some brain-boosting supplements you may want to consider include vitamin D, B12, and omega-3. Over 40 percent of Americans are deficient in vitamin D, which plays a major role in the development of new neural connections. Vitamin deficiencies may be affecting our brain health and influencing the IQ score decline.
4. Protect the gut-brain axis.
Do not kill your microbiome! The gut-brain axis, a connection between the trillions of bacteria living in our gut microbiome and the brain, has been shown to be intricately connected to our health. Unless absolutely necessary, say no to antibiotics, which indiscriminately wipe out both "good" and "bad" bacteria. Also, don't excessively sanitize, which can kill off "good bacteria"—cleaner is not necessarily better! And watch out for sneaky microbiome killers like artificial sweeteners.
5. Reset your circadian rhythm.
Your brain runs on an internal clock called your circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm rules your sleep cycle, hormone levels, and overall health. When it is out of whack, it can affect your ability to process information, make decisions, and recall memories, all of which could translate to scoring lower on an IQ test. Getting in tune with your circadian rhythm can maximize brain health. This is where intermittent fasting, sunlight, and nature come into play. These environmental factors clue your body in to the natural cycles that rule a healthy circadian rhythm. I recommend everyone get some nature time every single day—barefoot is the best. If nothing else, get some morning sun to reset your circadian clock each day. Limit blue light from computers, phones, and video games after 6 p.m., which can suppress the "sleep" hormone melatonin and mess with your ability to fall asleep.
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6. Cultivate purpose.
Even if we eat right and rest well, we may still be missing a crucial component of brain health—purpose. Research has shown that knowing your purpose in life conserves cognitive function and reduces the risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's. In fact, having a sense of purpose has been linked to lower death rates. By cultivating a purpose-driven life, we can not only protect our brain health but our overall health as well.
So, as it turns out, all hope is not lost for human intelligence. The key to reversing the downward trend in IQs and boosting brain health is as simple as changing our diet and lifestyle.
Learn more about the future of brain health here.
Integrative Medicine Doctor
Amy Shah, M.D. is a double board certified MD with training from Cornell, Columbia and Harvard Universities. She was named one of mindbodygreen's Top 100 Women In Wellness to Watch in 2015 and has been a guest on many national and local media shows. She helps busy people transform their health by reducing inflammation and eating more plants. As an immunologist she realizes the power of the microbiome to help digestion, natural hormone balance and food sensitivities.
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