Songs are written about the heart. Funny Emojis pay tribute to that vital organ keeping us alive, but what about the brain? The brain is at the core and substance of life, of thinking, conjecture, of simply being functional. This unsung hero definitely falls short in the adulation department, even as it literally runs the entire show of what is our everyday life.
Memory loss is affecting more people as the population ages and people live longer. More than 6 million people in the United States have Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, and this number is projected to be 13 million by 2050. While Alzheimer’s prevention has no definitive answers at this time, research has shown that we can take action to reduce our risk of developing it. A healthy brain is necessary for a healthy lifestyle and improving our brain health does not require too much effort. Here are a few tips:
Drink lots of water
You may not know this, but our brains are 73% water (1), and not just that, they need water and electrolytes for their synapses to function. Brain function is affected by dehydration, and the opposite is also true, drinking plenty of water and staying hydrated, is necessary for optimal mental performance and cognitive abilities (2).
Eat a healthy Mediterranean diet
Our brains need to be nourished to perform well. Nuts and seeds, extra virgin olive oil, fatty fish, are all rich in omega fatty acids and healthy fats that are essential for our brain’s health (3). Improving your diet, and opting for a Mediterranean diet, will improve brain function as well as our waistline! The Mediterranean diet is based on whole grains, fresh produce, fish and unprocessed ingredients.
The brain cells greedily consume oxygen and nutrients to function optimally and they receive them through an intricate and rich network of blood vessels within the brain. Exercise plays a role in boosting blood circulation, improving blood oxygenation and generally improving the body’s blood supply, including that in the brain. Regular exercise has been shown to slow down and prevent natural brain decline brought on by aging as well as actually improving brain performance and mental agility (3). In fact, people who regularly exercise appear to be strengthening not only their physical abilities, but their mental ones too.
Eating healthy and exercising regularly are great steps towards a healthier lifestyle and a more agile brain, but weight management is important too. Studies show that people who were obese in their mid-life, had a higher risk of developing dementia and other cognitive diseases as they aged (10). In fact, studies go to show that losing weight in a healthy manner, such as by eating nutritiously dense, low glycemic index foods, increasing activity and resting well seemed to improve cognitive performance in certain areas such as memory and language skills(11).
Our sleep isn’t one long stretch of snoozing, but rather multiple phases and types of sleep, including light sleep, heavy sleep and REM. During these and other sleep phases, our brains are busy reshuffling and sorting information, consolidating thoughts and memories collected during the day. The brain also works to heal, regenerate and rest during that time, as does the rest of our body, and without a long stretch of uninterrupted sleep (preferably 8 hours), the brain can’t carry out these crucial processes. A good night’s sleep can improve mental performance and health (3).
While watching endless hours of Netflix after a long and tiring day may sound restful and appealing, it does little to stimulate your brain. Our brains are organic machines, with multiple wires, circuitry and neurons firing constantly. New thoughts, new patterns, new ideas, doing challenging puzzles and solving riddles or mathematical problems, all force the brain to progress, to create new neural pathways and to improve cognitive performance. Regularly challenging the brain and doing mentally engaging activities plays a huge role in keeping our brains young and improving cognitive ability.
It’s no coincidence that individuals with deep community ties and social connections seem to fare better mentally than isolated individuals with weak social ties. Positive emotions, laughter, companionship and the onslaught of endorphins and chemicals our bodies release when we are part of healthy social relationships, are all part of a healthy brain and have been shown to improve mental and cognitive abilities (4).
Quit smoking and limit your alcohol intake
While smokers might mistakenly assume the mental alertness and stimulation brought on by nicotine inhalation to be beneficial to the brain, it’s merely a superficial reaction to the chemicals in cigarettes. In fact, smokers seem to be at a higher risk of developing dementia and other degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s (5). While some studies indicate that alcohol in limited amounts can be beneficial for the brain (6) , others found that even small amounts were harmful to the brain(7). However, all studies concurred in that excessive drinking is harmful to the brain and our cognitive abilities and mental health. Excessive drinking muddles the brain, in both the short term and the long term.
Lifelong learning, or continuing education, does more than just stimulate us and enrich our knowledge. It also seems to be helpful in reducing the risk of dementia and cognitive decline. Learning and storing new information stimulates the brain cells, forges new neural pathways, and is one way to engage our brains and cultivate mental agility. Lifelong learning can keep us young, in mind and at heart (9).
- WHO Guidelines: Risk reduction of cognitive decline and dementia.