6 Habits to Promote Brain Health
We tend not to think very much about our brain when we’re young. That might be a bit of a philosophical conundrum (can a brain think about itself?), but it also can carry unfortunate repercussions down the road. It’s important to build a strong foundation of brain health for better aging, both physically and mentally. As we age, the mind-body connection becomes even more pronounced, and our physical health profoundly impacts our mental health - and vice versa.
Although it’s often taken for granted, your brain plays a vital role in your quality of life. As the command control center of your nervous system, functions regulated by your brain include memory, moods, energy, and mobility. Each of these functions are complex and tightly interconnected. In fact, it's difficult to define brain health, since so many different processes are involved.
Why is taking care of our brain health so important?
One thing is certain: As we age, risks to brain health increase. One in four adults will experience a stroke in their lifetime, every five years after the age of 65, risk of Alzheimer’s doubles and other neurological conditions go up.
Perhaps the most shocking statistic out of the CDC shows that 77.4 % of adults aged 45 - 65+ with at least 1 chronic disease show significant cognitive decline compared to just 22.6 % with no chronic disease (88.3 % being female).
However, there are many things we can do to protect our brain health. Although there is a genetic risk in Alzheimer's, deterministic genes (genes that directly cause a disease, as opposed to risk genes which increase the risk) are tied to less than one percent of Alzheimer’s cases. By looking after our physical body before we experience problems, we can reduce our risk.
Let’s take a deep dive into some protective measures we can take for brain health.
1. Eat for brain health.
A diet high in antioxidants minimizes the oxidative damage that can lead to impaired cognitive functioning, particularly with regards to memory. Foods high in antioxidants include brightly colored produce, spices like turmeric and curry, and many beans. Many foods high in Vitamin C are antioxidants, and studies show a link between low intake of Vitamin C and the development of dementia. As well, choose foods high in omega-3 fatty acids whenever possible. Your brain cells contain the fatty acids DPA and EHA, and a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids helps your brain build new cells. Good sources include nuts and seeds, fatty fish, and plant oils like flaxseed oil.
Coffee has also been linked to a reduced risk of stroke and Alzheimer’s, perhaps because of its antioxidant qualities. If you don’t like coffee, green tea may have even stronger brain-health benefits, in part because of its high levels of the amino acid L-theanine, which can trigger a relaxation response in the brain that balances the stimulating effects of caffeine.
To counteract oxidative stress and damage to the brain, avoid excess alcohol, sugar, and processed foods.
2. Keep your blood sugar in check.
High blood sugar is associated with an increased risk of cognitive impairment, even if a person doesn’t develop diabetes. You may start to hear Alzheimer’s being referred to as “Type 3 diabetes” more and more as research has shown clear links between insulin dysregulation and cognitive impairment leading to Alzheimer’s disease. A balanced diet, including fats and protein with each meal and eating plenty of fiber can help keep your blood sugar levels stable.
3. Control your blood pressure and exercise regularly.
Not only does high blood pressure increase the risk of stroke, it can also impair blood flow to the brain. This can raise the risk of vascular dementia. One study found that a 10-mmHg increase in systolic blood pressure raised the risk of cognitive problems by 9%. One way to improve blood pressure is to maintain a regular exercise routine. Numerous studies show a clear link between even modest exercise and improved metabolism in the parts of the brain responsible for learning and memory function as well.
4. Be cautious with medications.
Certain kinds of commonly prescribed medication can impair brain function, including many medications for anxiety, sleep problems and allergy symptoms. It’s always important to review the side effects of any medications with a healthcare practitioner and discuss alternative treatments.
5. Keep your brain active.
“Use it or lose it” doesn’t just apply to your physical health. Activities that stimulate your brain and help develop new neural connections include puzzles, vocabulary exercises, crossword puzzles, learning a new language, and listening to (or playing) music.
Physical activities that require some mental concentration have similar benefits. The practice of yoga and tai chi have both been found to increase brain volume, and dancing improves spatial memory and overall cognitive health - not to mention its numerous social and physical benefits.
6. Research supplements.
If you can’t get all your nutrients from diet or have trouble with absorption, supplementation of certain brain healthy supplements can be beneficial. Some supplements that are beneficial for brain health include:
Fish oil, which contains high levels of Omega-3 fatty acid.
B vitamins and folic acid, which help with the production of neurotransmitters.
Vitamin D, which is particularly important during the dark winter months. One study found that people with low levels of Vitamin D have twice the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
Be sure to speak with your healthcare provider before including any new supplements to see if they are right for you!
Attitude is everything.
One of the most important things you can do to protect your brain health is to simply commit to protecting it. Studies show that feeling that you are in control of your own aging process, which includes your brain health, leads to healthier outcomes. One study found that among people with a genetic predisposition to dementia, a positive attitude toward aging led to an almost 50% reduction in developing any form of dementia.
Taking steps towards an overall healthier lifestyle will help you gain that sense of control.
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