Six Keys to Better Brain Health

As we grow older, we may find ourselves becoming more forgetful. A person’s name from our past escapes us or we can’t find the car keys. These episodes can make us wonder if we’re developing Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. Fortunately, there are things that we can all do to improve our brain’s health and possibly decrease our chances of developing diseases that affect the mind. Here are six tips to help you keep your brain in optimum shape.

Waist-up view of mature intellectual man with satck of books.

Challenge your mind. Just as the body needs exercise to stay in peak condition, so does the mind. According to Arnold Scheibel, head of UCLA’s Brain Research Institute, “Anything that’s intellectually challenging can probably serve as a kind of stimulus for dendritic growth, which means it adds to the computational reserves in the brain.” Stated simply, stimulating the mind with new challenges encourages brain cells to grow, which may stave off the effects of Alzheimer’s. Brain autopsies from volunteers have shown that many people who have high levels of beta-amyloid plaques – an indicator of Alzheimer’s – never show any signs of the disease. Many scientists – including Dennis Selkoe, MD, co-director of the Center for Neurologic Diseases in the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Department of Neurology – believe that regular exposure to new activities may delay some of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Selkoe suggests “that prolonged exposure to a richer, more novel environment beginning even in middle age might help protect the hippocampus from the bad effects of amyloid beta, which builds up to toxic levels in one hundred percent of Alzheimer patients.”

Stay physically active. The brain doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is part of the body. Anything that helps the body stay healthy, helps the brain stay healthy. So staying fit helps the brain just as much as the heart, your muscles or any other part of your body. In one study of seniors, those who reported that they exercised for at least 30 minutes a day, three times a week, reduced their risk of vascular-related dementia by 40 percent and cognitive impairment due to any reason by 60 percent. Research by the Department of Neurosurgery at UCLA showed that physical activity makes it easier for the brain to grow new connections between neurons.  

Eat well. Good nutrition, which helps the body function at its best, is essential for good brain health. And there are several specific nutrients that the brain is particularly fond of. Approximately 60 percent of your brain is composed of fat, so it’s important to get enough healthy fats in your diet. And that means loading up on your omega-3 fatty acids. Food high in omega-3s include many fish, especially wild salmon, herring, and sardines. Other good sources of omega-3s include flaxseed (including flaxseed oil) and walnuts. Antioxidants, found in high concentrations in blueberries, red beans, green tea and red wine, are also important for brain health. Finally, the brain loves water. Dehydration can raise the level of stress hormones in the body.

Socialize. As human beings, we are, by nature, social animals. Our ability to exchange ideas and share complex emotions has helped build civilizations and create amazing works of art. It’s also important to maintain brain health. In two separate studies, researchers at Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Michigan discovered that people who engaged in a lot of social activity showed higher levels of cognitive performance and had slower rates of memory decline. In the Harvard study, socially active adults had less than half the rate of memory decline than those who were the least active.

Lose weight. Paul Thompson, professor of neurology at UCLA’s School of Medicine, published research that found that the brains of obese seniors had about 8 percent less brain volume than their normal-weight counterparts. Lower brain volume increases one’s risk for Alzheimer’s. Additionally, according to research by Dr. Jeff Cummings, director of Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, obesity elevates brain proteins that are linked to the development of the disease.

Nurture your spirit. Stress is an underlying cause for many diseases. In a Utah State University study, lead researcher Maria Norton, Ph.D., discovered that people who experienced particularly stressful life events have significantly higher rates of dementia later in life. One of the best ways to cope with stress is to practice spirituality. In a study that looked specifically at spirituality’s effect on brain health, study author Yakir Kaufman, MD, learned that “patients with higher levels of spirituality or higher levels of religiosity may have a significantly slower progression of cognitive decline.” Many people find comfort in their faith community and with other practices that focus on meaning and our place in the world. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University studied over 19,000 meditation studies and concluded that mindfulness meditation can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain – all of which are risk factors for dementia. Protect your brain by paying attention to spiritual questions and spiritual life.

The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. Talk to your healthcare provider about questions you may have about brain health and a brain-healthy lifestyle.

Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2015.