The human brain is, arguably, the most valuable organ in your body. Unlike your heart, lungs, or kidneys, your brain—that 1.4kg mass of interconnected cells called neurons—makes up the essence of who you are…of that which makes you…you.
It is, therefore, no surprise why cognitive decline is one of the most dreaded consequences of aging. Fortunately, while the brain does tend to change with age, there are steps that you can take to not only enhance its capacity today but also reduce the risk of age-related memory loss down the road.
You’ll hear it again and again: exercise is good for your health. It doesn’t just improve your blood pressure, cholesterol, and sleep quality; it also helps your brain. Physical activity—even daily strolls in the park—can improve day-to-day mental functioning and delay age-related cognitive decline. Studies have shown that regular exercise is associated with preservation of brain volume, enhanced thinking and memory skills, and reduced risk of dementia. Those who are older who incorporate daily moderate exercise into their lives score significantly higher on cognitive tests than those who do not. In addition to improving blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain, physical activity is thought to facilitate neural communication in the hippocampus, a critical brain region responsible for learning and memory and which tends to lose volume with aging, dementia, and depression.
Not only is physical activity important, but mental exercise is just as crucial, with it being one of the major contributors to long-term brain health. Constant stimulation of the mind facilitates the formation of new connections between neurons and may even help the brain generate new ones, improving neurological plasticity and building up a functional reserve that puts you at an advantage against future cell loss.
Any mentally stimulating activity that requires effort can be beneficial. While there are many “brain games” available that are marketed for this purpose, old-fashioned reading, learning a new language, word puzzles, or math problems work just as well. The key is that it shouldn’t be too easy. I encourage you to try different things to find an activity that is entertaining yet challenging, and allocate some time for it each day.
Although there is some debate on whether taking a general daily multivitamin offers substantial benefit, there is no doubt that your brain needs certain vitamins in order to function properly. The three B vitamins— B12, B6, and folic acid—can help lower your homocysteine levels–high levels of which can lead to dementia. Vitamin B12, in particular, is especially important when it comes to keeping your brain and nervous system healthy.
Vitamin D, among its many functions, also helps in the maintenance of neurons and is important for brain health. Metabolic pathways for vitamin D exist all through your body, including your brain’s hippocampus, thus playing a role in the processing of information and the formation of new memories. Not surprisingly, low levels of vitamin D has been associated with many health problems, including depression and cognitive decline.
Wondering if you are getting enough vitamin D? This article will help.
While there is no single ‘magic food,’ a diet low in refined sugar and high in whole grains, healthy fats, fruits, and vegetables is one of the best things you can do for your body and brain.
Omega-3 fatty acids, along with their other known benefits, play a role in maintaining brain health. While just taking an omega-3 capsule has not been shown to have the same effect, diets consisting of fatty fish rich in natural omega-3 are thought to positively affect cognitive function. Furthermore, there is some evidence that antioxidant-rich foods such as cocoa and blueberries, as well as some spices (eg. turmeric), may also play a role in preserving mental functioning when incorporated as part of a healthy diet.
Want to learn more about omega-3 foods? This article will help.
On the other hand, too much refined sugar has the opposite effect. In addition to negatively affecting your energy level through the rapid fluctuation of blood sugar and insulin secretion, some studies have shown that diets high in fructose can worsen neuronal plasticity—the ability of your brain to create new pathways between neurons—suggesting that, in the long run, it may actually adversely impact cognitive health.
This is very important. While high blood pressure increases your risk of a variety of serious health problems, it has been shown that uncontrolled high blood pressure, particularly during midlife, increases your risk of vascular dementia and significant cognitive decline in later years.
Wondering about high blood pressure? This article will give you the essential information as well as some natural ways to improve it.
Although the practice of meditation has been effectively utilized for thousands of years, it wasn’t until fairly recently that it came into the scientific spotlight. Regular meditation has been linked to improved brain volume and functioning in certain areas of the cerebral cortex, along with generalized reduction of activity in the parts of the brain that control fear and anxiety. It also has been associated with positive long term changes in the neural networks connecting different regions of the brain, resulting in improved attention and concentration.
Chronic stress and the subsequent elevation of the stress hormone cortisol, on the other hand, can trigger long-term changes in neuronal growth, negatively affecting not only brain structure but your learning and memory.
Already overly stressed? Try incorporating these simple techniques into your day.
Coffee lovers, rejoice! Not only does drinking coffee give you a short-term boost in alertness and mood, but some studies show that regular, moderate coffee consumption (1-2 cups daily) is associated with better cognitive performance as you get older. They also suggest that coffee may play a role in reducing the risk of depression and cognitive decline caused by Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Why is that? In addition to coffee’s antioxidant properties, studies have shown that caffeine may have a neuroprotective effect on your brain by minimizing damage from the buildup of amyloid plaques that lead to some neurodegenerative diseases. Moderate caffeine intake may also help the aging brain by boosting insulin sensitivity, reducing your risk of developing type 2 diabetes (a common cause of cognitive decline).
Your brain needs sleep. It uses that time to consolidate memories, encode new information, and strengthen neural connections. Sleep deprivation, no matter how little, negatively affects your attention, learning, and creative thinking to some degree. But the longer you are sleep-deprived, the more detrimental the effect is on your physical, mental, and cognitive health.
Chronic sleep deprivation can lead to depression, weight gain, and increased risk of diabetes as well as possibly some cancers. The longer you are sleep-deprived, the longer it takes for your brain to recuperate, and evidence suggests that long-term sleep deprivation leaves your brain more vulnerable to pathologic processes that lead to diseases like Alzheimer’s. How much sleep should you get? While everyone varies, studies have shown that most people need on average at least 7 hours of sleep a night.
Having trouble sleeping? Consider putting these tips into practice.
So, with that said, here’s to healthy living with a healthy brain…for many years to come!