Keeping your brain healthy involves many of the same rules as keeping the rest of your body fit, like eating a healthy diet and regular exercise. Read on to learn what else benefits your acuity so you can stay sharp for life!
BY ANN PIERCE
In the past, the ultimate decline of your intellect seemed inevitable. Science generally agreed that your mental peak occurred in late adolescence and simply worsened over time. Stroke or brain injury were believed to be permanent, without hope for repair.
Fortunately, neuroscience has found that your brain, like any other muscle, can be exercised and strengthened. Cary Bayless, a partial hospitalization program therapist at Parkridge Valley Adult & Senior Campus, explains, “There is a common misconception that as we age, we are doomed to lose our cognitive abilities.” Research, he says, shows the answer to be more multifaceted. “Brain change is an inevitable part of the aging process, but this does not mean once we reach a certain age we are doomed. There are many proactive steps we can take to help us avoid cognitive decline as we age,” he explains.
With proper care, your body’s most complex organ has the ability to regrow cells and form new neural connections throughout life. The more you use your brain, the more you can store away additional cells for future needs. To get those neural connections sparking, here’s what you should do:
#1 Exercise Regularly
Keeping your body active daily – for as little at 15-30 minutes – can help your brain grow and help prevent or slow the onset of Alzheimer’s or other dementias. “Aerobic exercise such as hiking, power walking, or playing tennis is beneficial for your brain,” Bayless explains. “And cardio increases your heart rate, which increases the blood flow and level of oxygen pumped into your brain.” This increase in oxygen helps create new connections between cells (known as synapses) and maintain the adaptability of your thought processes. It even reduces blood pressure and helps with cholesterol, blood sugar, and stress, three other key components for brain health.
#2 Maintain Social Interactions
Each week brings more scientific evidence about the impact positive social interactions have on every facet of senior life, and the brain is no exception. Social networks do more than keep you busy; they have been found to help reduce the risk of dementia, lower blood pressure, and even help you live longer. Alisha Landes, executive director at The Lantern at Morning Pointe, explains, “Maintaining an active social life is crucial not only for our overall health but for our mental health too. It stimulates our brains by challenging us to listen and interact in conversations.”
#3 Get Good Sleep
A lack of sleep can slow your thinking, and if it’s chronic, can lead to dementia. To keep your brain healthy, develop good before-bedtime habits to help your mind and body prepare to rest. Turn off the TV, listen to relaxing weather sounds, or consider reading a book. Mute your phone so late-night notifications don’t startle you awake.
Additionally, don’t be too eager to get a medication to ease you to sleep. They can often have a “hangover effect” that causes more cognition problems than poor sleep. Find the routines that make you feel relaxed and peaceful, and teach your body to settle down.
#4 Try to De-Stress
One of the most important elements of good cognitive health is learning how to let go of unnecessary stress. Many studies have examined the effect of stress on older brains and found clear evidence of harm. Stressed-out brains produce cortisol and adrenaline, which, if they are released too often, can create physical problems such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and a lowered immune system. The higher levels of stress hormones that older brains receive over time can even damage the hippocampus, the part of the brain you need to store or retrieve memory. Knowing that can be an excellent motivator to learn to reduce stress and train yourself to practice a positive outlook.
#5 Learn New Things
“In order to keep our cognitive status the best it can be, we need to keep the neural connections in our brain strong,” explains Landes. “Games that challenge our working memory and mental agility can be an important part of this goal.” Reading novels, trying difficult word or math puzzles, or taking a class in something requiring manual dexterity can all support mental health.
Learning skills that keep you socially active are also important, so dance classes, book clubs, and volunteer work are all good options for trying something new. There is evidence that suggests these types of activities create a cognitive reserve that helps protect your brain. That reserve can enable the brain to be more adaptable and able to compensate for changes that occur as you age.
#6 Keep a Balanced Diet
To keep your mind healthy, your body has to support it. That means keeping a balanced diet of fruits and vegetables; whole grains; lean meats, poultry, and fish; and low-fat dairy products is important. Solid fats and salt should be limited, and portion sizes should be controlled. “Many studies have found that a diet that has a consistent pattern of high levels of sugar, bad fats, refined carbs, and processed foods can lead to memory impairment, inflammation, and an increase in depressive symptoms,” says Bayless. “It is important to remember that the brain is a muscle first, not a machine.”
The path to keeping a healthy brain is well-traveled and easy to find: Eat wisely, maintain positive social interactions, exercise and take care of your physical health, and learn to relax and enjoy life around you. It all works together, and each good habit supports the body and mind in different ways. “Commit to exercising your brain every day!” says Landes. HS