Keeping Your Brain Young and Vital

Feb 2, 2012   //   Academics, Blog, Health, Research, Technology

by Kathryn Wage, for Posit Science

Keeping your brain healthy should be a high priority, no matter what your age. Just as maintaining your physical health contributes to a high standard of quality of life, good brain health supports your potential for success and wellbeing. When you are young, obtaining enough nutrients and fostering a rich, nurturing environment leads to good cognitive skills for learning. When you are middle-aged, you rely on your brain to excel at work and in your personal life, so that you can meet daily demands without faltering. In the later years, you may be concerned about your brain health and wonder what consequences brain health might have on your independence and overall function. However, no matter what your age, the goal should be to have your “brain span” match your “lifespan.”

That’s the ultimate benchmark for a life of optimal and total health. It’s important to think about brain health during all stages of life to increase the probability of achieving the existence you desire. Luckily, neuroscience is giving us more insight into how to create and maintain good brain health throughout our lifetime. Knowing and learning about your brain can help you appreciate all it does for you, as well as understand the benefits of taking care of it.

The idea of having our thinking capacities diminished for any reason usually results in anxiety, and with good reason. Having sound memory, good problem solving skills, and the ability to respond with curiosity to our surroundings are all essential to meaningful, daily engagement with the world. Likewise, the ability to be a good listener, find the right words, and think quickly are important elements for maintaining social connections. When we have good brain health and are functioning optimally, our mood is elevated and we feel confident and optimistic.

These characteristics are just a few hallmarks of a youthful, vital brain. While most of us expect some level of “deterioration” as we grow older, which is aptly reflected in numerous expressions associated with aging and loss of cognitive function, preserving and enhancing a healthy, youthful brain is possible at all stages of life. Jokes aside, exercising your brain is an important daily activity.

Adapting to the rapid changes all around us is what a healthy brain does best. In fact, there is evidence that shows our brains are capable of adapting to new circumstances and information until the moment of our very last breath of life. Surely, this proves what a wondrous organ the brain truly is!

What diminishes brain health?

There are many conditions that impact the integrity of our brain functioning; some are temporary, and some take their toll over a longer period of time. Temporary conditions include side effects from drug or alcohol use, sleep deprivation, and short-term illnesses. Chronic conditions or injuries, by contrast, can have permanent effects that require life modifications and/or compensations. There is a long list of diseases and chronic conditions that affect brain health, including (but certainly not limited to): chronic poor nutrition, head injury,
stroke, and HIV. Genetics plays a role in some types of cognitive decline, and some medications such as chemotherapy may result in decreased function, giving birth to what some sufferers call “chemobrain.” Many of these and other conditions are being studied to determine if the effects of this can be mitigated or improved upon. And, in some cases, we already know the answer is a resounding “yes.”

Brain Maintenance Manual

Regardless of any diagnosis, there is absolutely no reason to sit helplessly by while your brain function diminishes with age or illness. You can actively take part in improving cognitive ability in many areas such as memory, speed of processing, accuracy, mood, and recall. It is not necessary that age takes its toll on mental skills or that disease and injury result in permanent damage to brain function. Thanks to neuroscience research performed around the world, the body of knowledge surrounding maintaining a healthy brain is dramatically more advanced than it was 20 years ago. With the help of brain imaging techniques and continuing studies, restoring function and increasing your current potential are no longer lost causes.

And, the good news is that the tools to build a vital, healthy brain are not exotic or out of reach. They are readily accessible and when you know what to do, your daily choices will make a difference in how youthful your brain is. Just as lifestyle has an impact on our bodies, the way we live impacts our brain health as well. New Learning is the Key Being a “creature of habit,” it turns out, is not the best way to maintain brain health. Habits are important because they allow us to do many things throughout the day without having to make a conscious effort. Think of it like this: when you do something repeatedly in the same way, you are creating deeper and deeper tracks, or neuropathways, in the brain. These neuropathways eventually become so deep that trying to learn a new behavior is very difficult. In contrast to this, if you complete daily activities in a new and different manner, you are stimulating your brain to make new connections rather than deepening the existing grooves. The more new connections you create, the more opportunity there is for recovering or maintaining health, particularly if your brain is challenged by illness or age. There is much research that has proven the old saying “use it or lose it” also applies to Mental maintaining brain flexibility in thinking and the ability to adapt. Think about your current habits and experiment with replacing them with new ones for the purpose of improving or maintaining a vital brain. And, after your new course of action becomes a habit, change it, because once again, you will only be deepening the grooves.

Physical Exercise

A study done by the Department of Exercise Science at the University of Georgia found that even briefly exercising for 20 minutes facilitates information processing and memory functions. The benefits of physical exercise, especially aerobic exercise, have a positive effect on brain function on multiple fronts, ranging from the molecular to behavioral levels. When you exercise, your increased heart rate pumps more oxygen to your brain, releasing hormones, which aid in nourishing new brain cells. These new brain cells make new connections in the brain, allowing brain plasticity or adaptation to occur in a wide variety of areas in the brain. Similarly, research from UCLA demonstrated that exercise increased growth factors in the brain, making it easier for the brain to grow new neuronal connections. To depict this point, maybe you have heard of, or have experienced a “runner’s high.” This effect is actually a dose of natural antidepressant-like neurotransmitters that are associated with a drop in stress hormones. A study from Stockholm showed that the antidepressant effect of running was also associated with more cell growth in the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for learning and memory.

Optimum Diet

It makes sense that diet is important to brain health. After all, we know that a “starved” brain suffers and cannot develop. It is not so clear, however, what exactly constitutes a good diet for brain health maintenance. So far, although not conclusive, eating foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, has topped the brain-food list because they reduce inflammation throughout the body, including in the brain. Vitamins and other food sources have been a major focus of research in brain health as well, but have also produced conflicting results. Unfortunately, there is still so much to study and learn about nutrition and the brain, so the best advice for now is to maintain a healthy and balanced diet.

Mental Exercise

The best way to exercise your brain and keep it young is to LEARN NEW THINGS. When we learn something new, we are pushing our brain to create new connections and increase neurotransmitters. Practice repeatedly until you have mastered a new skill; once you’ve accomplished this, you can rest assured that you’ve just added a new groove to your thinking arsenal! Anything that you have always done the same way creates a “roadway” in your brain that makes it difficult for you to change or adapt. When we are young, we rapidly learn new things. As the brain is exposed to new input, the neurons keep forming new connections. In adulthood, however, we tend to stop actively learning. We get into maintenance mode, which does not challenge the brain to its full potential. And challenging the brain is exactly what we need to constantly do in order to ensure continual brain growth, thus warding off mental decline.

Take Control of Your Brain

Research shows that if we keep challenging our brains with new activities, we can keep them young. Even if your brain shows signs of loss, don’t forget that you truly can turn back time. If you are concerned about your current brain health, consult with a professional who is trained in how to measure your current capabilities, and who can also counsel you on changes that may improve your brain adaptability. You can even test your own brain health at home and do daily brain exercises at www.brainhq.com. Don’t sit passively by; take charge of your habits to improve your brain span, and ensure your mind is there to match your body every step of the way.

 

About the Author:

Kathryn Wage, M.A., CCC-SLP is a private practice speech language pathologist and Director of the California Learning Connection in Fresno, as well as a former lecturer at Fresno Pacific University and California State University, Fresno.

Center For Communication Skills, Speech & Language Pathologists, Fresno, CA