As you age, you will see natural changes in your skin, hair, and even mobility. How you age, however, depends on your genes, environment, and lifestyle (which includes personal choices). Another natural change that is taking place as you grow older, although not so visible to the eye, is how your brain functions. In order to stay healthy, active, and independent, it is imperative that you keep your brain healthy and/or improve brain health by integrating five key cornerstones into your daily life.
What is Brain Health?
According to the Administration for Community Living, brain health is the ability to remember, learn, plan, concentrate, and maintain a clear and active mind. Your brain health can be affected by your genetic makeup, diseases (such as Alzheimer’s), brain injuries, smoking, poor diet, lack of sleep, and lack of physical activity.
How to Improve Your Brain Health
As suggested by recent research, we know that the function of the brain (no matter its age or status) can be improved by taking a holistic approach and making specific adjustments in your lifestyle. The holistic approach, which has been broken down into five key cornerstones of daily living, has been well documented and researched by the AARP and supported through several additional studies. The good news is, you can take immediate action, using the approach outlined below:
Physical activity is associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. By exercising, you are immediately increasing the blood flow – and the flow of oxygen – to your brain and throughout your body. This is just what your brain needs, as the brain receives about 15-20% of the body’s blood supply and survives on the oxygen supplied via the blood flow. Through exercise you are able to also reduce stress, improve your memory, improve your sleep, and reduce blood pressure.
Challenging your brain by learning a new skill, a new subject, or hobby will have short and long-term benefits. It is important to continue to expose yourself to new challenges rather than routine actions (such as doing the same game repeatedly). “Cognitive and social engagement have been shown to be protective against cognitive decline, whereas hearing loss, depression, and social isolation are associated with cognitive decline,” says Dr. Kathryn Papp, a neuropsychologist and instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School.
You need to find ways to reduce stress, get enough sleep, and allow time for meditation. Your brain does not shut off when it is asleep and needs the time to refresh for the next day. By meditating you can reduce your stress, calm your mind, and increase your ability to discover new things and challenge your brain. It has been reported that chronic stress can directly damage the brain, which reinforces the need to find time to relax your brain, find time to exercise, and find more me time.
The right diet will help give you energy to exercise and can also help you sleep. Your brain needs healthy fats from fish, berries, and other veggies that provide the right nutrients (such as Omega 3). Research suggests that the right foods and wrong foods can directly affect our physical and mental health. The Society for Neuroscience has found that, “Our brains are sculpted by what we eat. If it’s too much fat, too much sugar, or just too much [of anything’, there may be permanent consequences for our brain function. Keeping our brains in shape is one more reason to clean up our diets.”
Being social and participating in activities with others is associated with reduced risk for depression and can possibly delay the onset of dementia. John Cacioppo, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago researched loneliness in his book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, outlining that social connections with others are essential for a long and healthy life. These social connections directly connect with our brain health and overall well-being.
The five cornerstones for brain health outlined above are your guide to get started. You may need to jump on all five, or just add only one or two into your regular routine. Discuss this topic with your loved ones and with your physician. Wherever you are in your journey, you can start today by incorporating all of these into your lifestyle to help keep your brain healthy and sharp.