These Lifestyle Tips Could Help Save Your Brain
Research has shown that there are a number of activities that can be incorporated into your lifestyle that can prevent cognitive and physical decline. Adopting some simple daily habits, and doing them regularly, as well as paying closer attention to the ones you do anyway, will result in both cognitive and physical health, as you get older.
1 Reduce your stress
Extensive research has highlighted the negative effects that stress has on both your body and your brain. The worst kind of stress that the brain can experience, and which leads to brain damage if it continues unchecked, is stress that combines these three factors:
- A lack of predictability
- A lack of control
- A lack of obvious outlets for the resultant frustration
Hints to reduce this type of stress:
- Learn to live in the moment. Simply take a deep breath and focus on the moment that you find yourself in. Plan for the future, but don’t live in it.
- Identify the stresses that are most likely to make you to feel as if you have no control. Accept or avoid what you can’t change.
- Talk to someone who has had a similar challenge.
- Learn to say NO! You will be amazed how this one factor can transform your life.
- Do some ‘de-junking’ to reduce stress – it is easier to handle stress when you are organized.
- Move on from the past – whatever it takes – forgiveness, counseling, acceptance.
- Make a point of listing the things that you are grateful for at the end of each day. This lowers depression, which is a risk factor for cognitive decline.
- Extending yourself, through volunteering. This reduces both stress and depression.
- Laugh regularly. Happy people laugh, and are less likely to suffer from depression and stress.
- Foster strong, positive relationships, which support cognitive health. Move away from ones that leave you felling frustrated and unhappy.
- Exercise is a natural de-stressor, using up the chemicals that are produced when you feel stressed, overwhelmed and frustrated.
2 Exercise your body to help your brain
Research has indicated clearly that exercise strengthens the brain, through strengthening the heart firstly, but also through a direct mechanism that actually influences neurons. Exercise benefits your brain in the following ways:
- Your heart works harder and becomes stronger by pumping more blood and oxygen around your body and into your brain when you exercise. More blood, and more oxygen and nutrients being pumped throughout your body, mean more gets to your brain too.
- Exercising helps your blood vessels stay strong and healthy, which is protective against burst blood vessels in the brain.
- More blood being pumped into the brain means an increase in the growth of specific cells, called astrocytes, that support neurons.
- Exercise lowers your risk of getting heart disease, depression, diabetes, or experiencing hypertension, which – combined, or separately – are all risk factors for brain dysfunction and the death of neurons.
Further reasons why exercise benefits your brain starts deep within your muscles when you exercise:
- Chemicals produced in working muscles, find their way into the brain, increasing the production of a chemical, called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, or BDNF, which acts like fertilizer for your neurons, encouraging them to stay healthy and keep growing, even helping to grow new neurons.
- Exercising regularly, your brain builds up reserves of BDNF, helping neurons to branch out, joining together, forming new connections.
- A mood disorder may be a ‘lack of movement’ disorder, as specific neurotransmitters are increased after exercising, which give you a feeling of being happy and calm, focused and less impulsive.
- Your brain becomes more and more efficient at producing BDNF the more you exercise.
- An increased blood flow to the brain decreases inflammation.
3 Sleep enough to keep your brain sharp
Your body evolved to spend a third of its life asleep – less than that and you end up with a problem. There are a few very unusual people who seem to need less sleep, but researchers believe this is an exception to the sleep needs of most people. We get ill and eventually die when we are severely sleep deprived. These are some of the reasons why this may happen, and why the brain is severely affected by sleep deprivation:
- Your blood pressure drops when you sleep, which is good for your heart
- Dreaming seems to perform important functions in your brain, even though researchers do not yet understand this fully
- A number of hormones are released when you sleep, three of which are very important in the process of healing and rejuvenation that occurs during sleep:
- Erythropoietin is produced in your kidneys, during deep sleep, to stimulate red blood cell production in your bone marrow.
- Growth hormone is a special hormone produced in your pituitary gland at regular intervals of about 90 minutes, during sleep. The most powerful wave occurs about an hour after you fall asleep at night.
- Testosterone is an important hormone, for both men and women, ensuring high levels of energy, a healthy libido, good immunity against illness and strong bones. Poor sleep leads to low levels of testosterone.
- Rat brains, deprived of sleep, experience more neuronal damage due to oxidation, from energy production within neurons. Sleep seems to allow the production of antioxidant-like compounds, which counteract the damage that occurs during the day. The hippocampus, the memory centre, is the area that seems to be affected most severely when sleep deprivation occurs. Humans seem to experience the same negative effects from sleep deprivation.
- Further research into sleep-deprived rats has found that their brains accumulate Amyloid-beta, a form of protein that is involved in Alzheimer’s disease. Research has yet to uncover whether this is true for humans too, but it seems wise to err on the side of caution, and get enough sleep.
4 Mental stimulation will keep your brain young
Researchers have discovered that being socially active, engaging in many activities that involve relating to others, and being involved in new experiences, uses your brain and keeps it active. This mental activity is now believed to be very important in keeping your brain healthy, and also helps your neurons to generate new connections.
There are a few specific pointers to keep in mind when making choices about how to keep your brain stimulated:
- The more educated a person is, the greater their ability to withstand age-related cognitive decline. This is called ‘cognitive reserve.’ However it is never too late to learn new things, so don’t let not receiving a qualification in your youth stop you from pursuing further education now.
- Do a few things differently, every day, to stimulate new pathways in your brain, like, going to work via a different route, using your non-dominant hand for daily tasks and eating with chopsticks.
- Learn new things by having in depth discussions with people who are experts in their fields.
- Spark new interests, new thoughts and new discussions by reading different books to what you have become used to reading.
- Researchers believe that playing chess and sudoka, while fun and mildly stimulating, doesn’t really make long term changes to the structure of the brain, so should not be relied on to provide all the mental stimulation that your brain needs as it gets older.
- Go somewhere new on holiday, where you will encounter a new culture and even a new language, once again increasing neuronal connections, and therefore cognitive health.
- Specific computer games can stimulate the release of specific chemicals within the brain, which can foster long term, positive, neuronal change.
5 Watch your weight to keep your brain healthy
As you get older, weight gain can be an insidious, creeping enemy, and a lack of physical exercise will increase the problem. People who are overweight are more likely to experience cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and depression, all of which are predisposing factors for mental illness and cognitive decline.
Research has also indicated that increasing body mass index (BMI) coupled with increasing age is associated with decreased brain volume, helping to explain decreased cognitive ability.
The over-consumption of refined carbohydrates, a low consumption of nutrient dense fresh produce, combined with an impaired digestive system, which often accompanies aging, and a lack of the correct Essential Fatty Acids, will all lead to weight gain, and general ill health, both mentally and physically.
Furthermore, impaired glucose sensitivity, which occurs due to the excessive intake of refined carbohydrates, and which is a pre-cursor for diabetes, is also linked to diminished cognitive ability. People who have good glucose control hold onto their memories for longer, than people who have impaired glucose sensitivity.
In conclusion, normal aging, added to unmanageable stress levels, inactivity, poor sleep, little mental stimulation and a negative outlook on life, accompanied by slow, but significant weight gain, will magnify cognitive decline. By keeping an open mind and an open heart, you are open to new experiences and by default will be open to ongoing brain stimulation, and good cognitive health.