A Whole-Body Approach to Brain Health
The great news about the steps you can take to improve your chances of long-term cognitive health is that many of them are the same steps you take to keep your body healthy. You need to add just a couple of items to a list that’s probably already familiar. And the new items are fun.
Here’s the familiar stuff:
- Reduce stress. If you’ve heard this advice from your doctor in relation to a physical condition, you now have double the reason to heed it. Research shows that stress causes synapses to malfunction.
Long-term stress can cause a neurotransmitter (a chemical that carries messages between nerve cells) called glutamate to build up in your synapses. If enough of it accumulates, it can become toxic and interfere with your memory and your ability to learn.
- Get aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise can help you manage and resist stress, which is enough reason to make it part of your daily routine. But among its many other benefits, studies suggest that it stimulates the creation of new neurons and strengthens the connections between them.
- Eat a diet rich in antioxidant foods. If your physical health alone hasn’t inspired you to stock up on blueberries and spinach, do so for your mental health. Foods rich in antioxidants may help counteract effects of free radicals in your brain. (Free radicals are molecules that contain oxygen that attack cells throughout your body. They’ve been linked to cancer and heart disease as well as brain deterioration.)
- Control high blood pressure and diabetes. A study published in the journal Neurology in 2001 showed that the mental abilities of participants with high blood pressure or diabetes declined more rapidly than those of other participants. High blood pressure is a risk factor for a condition called vascular dementia, in which a series of tiny strokes can affect memory and other cognitive abilities.
Early diagnosis and tight control of high blood pressure and diabetes may help prevent some of the ill effects on your cognitive health.
Ready for the steps that may be new on your to-do list?
- Get lots of mental stimulation. Ahhh, this is where the puzzles come in — finally!
You may be hard-pressed to find a scientist who would claim to know exactly how much mental stimulation the average adult of a certain age needs or what types of mental activities are best for a certain population. The science is fairly young, so you’ll certainly hear a lot more about it in the years to come. But the general consensus is this: Mental stimulation of any kind can have positive effects on warding off memory problems and other declines in cognitive function, and lack of stimulation is a serious factor in mental decline.
How should you use your brain to get the maximum results? Only you can answer that question. That’s because whatever you do, it has to be enjoyable enough to truly stimulate you and to keep you coming back for more, day after day. It’s a mental marathon, not a sprint, so go ahead and read War and Peace or pull out your old calculus textbook (but only if that’s what you really want.) Otherwise, look for other types of activities that will keep you interested in the long term. (Anyone for Sudoku?)
The bottom line: If there’s a hobby you love that you haven’t made time for in years, make time for it. If there’s an activity you’ve been meaning to do but have put on the back burner because it seems less important than folding laundry, do it. If there’s a subject you’ve been curious about for ages but haven’t had time to study, study it. And if anyone (including your conscience) pesters you about how you’re spending your time, memorize your new mantra: My brain needs me.
- Stay curious. This is an extension of the preceding point. If you’ve buried your curiosity about the world around you because you haven’t had time to explore it since childhood, now’s the time — no matter how old you are or what your life circumstances are — to rediscover how curiosity feels.
Whatever activities you choose to help keep your brain stimulated, you need to enjoy them enough to do them regularly. You can’t get your body fit by working out three hours in a row and then ignoring your health altogether for two weeks (because you’re so sore from the marathon workout that you can’t move for the first five days!). You benefit much more from working out consistently for shorter amounts of time — for example, every day for 30 minutes or four days a week for 45 minutes each time.
The same seems to be true of mental exercise. Your goal should be to make time for mental stimulation at least several days a week — ideally, every day. If you can’t devote time to working a crossword every day, no problem. But don’t let a month go by between mental workouts. You have to invest the time if you want the results.