While it’s no surprise that smoking, drinking and not exercising is not great for your health, the negative effect it has on your brain could be hitting earlier than you thought.

In fact, brain performance can be impacted by lifestyle factors as early as 45 in women, new research has shown.

The joint study from The University of Queensland, the University of New South Wales and Flinders University of South Australia shows certain lifestyle behaviours like smoking, excessive drinking and physical inactivity are linked to negative brain functions in women – and the effect these factors could have on cognitive performance occurred much earlier than expected.

“Although the average person might believe cognitive decline usually occurs later in life, research suggests significant declines in all aspects of cognitive performance may begin as early as age 45 in women,” says Professor Pachana. “In our study we were able to detect independent and consistent effects across time for smoking, drinking, and physical activity on five measures of cognitive function.”

Supported by grants from the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital Foundation, the eight-year study involved 489 Brisbane middle-aged and older women who were recruited from 2001. Objective thinking and memory tests were administered on three occasions over the eight years, and each time results showed smoking appeared to have impaired cognitive function.

“Moderate drinking and high physical activity levels offered protective effects over time, compared to not drinking and low levels of physical activity,” says Professor Pachana. “These effects remained after adjustments were made to take account of the varying ages and levels of education of the women in the study, as well as adjustments for differences in health such as hypertension.”

“Effects remained for light to moderate drinkers even after adjusting for physical activity levels. Current smokers performed worse than past smokers, who in turn performed worse than those who had never smoked.”

And it’s important not just to work out, but to work out hard – the study showed that women who engaged in increasing intensities of physical exercise, rather than just quantity of physical activity, were less likely to experience declines in thinking capability.

It’s never too late to improve your brain health, however – being more physically active, adopting a brain-healthy diet, socialising a lot and doing mentally-stimulating activities like puzzles and crosswords can all help.

What do you do to keep your brain healthy? Sudoku and memory games or something else? Let us know!