Whilst we may focus on maintaining the health of our bodies, we tend to pay less attention (if any) to the health of our brains. Maybe it’s because we cannot actually see how healthy or not our brains are; but brain health should be one of our top priorities if we strive for long, purposeful and fulfilling lives.
Mental health is quite rightly a priority for many people. That said, we often focus on fixing issues, rather than on prevention or good maintenance. Brain health is focused on supporting the continued wellness of the brain structure itself – the ‘hardware’. In turn, by taking care of the health of our brain we are ensuring great foundations for good mental health by preventing or reducing cognitive decline.
Interestingly, most people (including scientists) still know very little about this organ. We have some idea of how it functions and some ideas about what it needs for optimum health, but there is still so much to learn. I describe the mind as the ‘undiscovered country’ – along with the deepest oceans and the furthest reaches of our galaxies. Some of what we do know I will share in this article.
What we know about ageing and the brain
To begin with, the brain is a 1.1 to 1.3kg mass of soft tissue, grey, and white matter comprised of around 60% water. It controls all vital functions of the body and we cannot live without it. There are between 80-100 billion brain cells (neurons) in the brain. Each brain cell has on average 1,000 connections to other cells which therefore makes a total of 100 trillion different connections. In theory, the amount of possible connections in the brain exceeds the number of atoms in the universe and no two brains have the same connections. They are utterly unique in patterning.
Changes in cognitive function, such as a slower speed of information processing, can occur in normal ageing. However, each person is different and cognitive decline is not inevitable.
In fact, many older adults appear to avoid cognitive decline well into their 90s, and some even beyond. Whilst some genetic factors for cognitive decline are inherited from our parents, and may not readily be controlled, other environmental and lifestyle factors can be controlled by us.
For a long time, scientists thought that some aspects of cognition peaked at around 20 years of age, then slowly declined. Recent research conducted by MIT neuroscientists has found that it is far more complicated than that.
They have suggested that our cognitive processes don’t get better or worse over time, they simply alter.
These neuroscientists have suggested that at different ages, we have more aptitude for certain things than at others – for example:
- Information processing peaks around the age of 18 and 19
- Short-term memory peaks around 25 and declines around 35
- Visual short-term memory peaks in the early 30s
- The ability to read another person’s emotion peaks around the 40s and 50s
- Vocabulary peaks in the late 60s or early 70s
However, whether most of us follow this same pattern or not is open to fierce debate.
We have also learnt over the last 20 years or so, that rather than having a fixed number of brain cells (neurons), which wear out over time, our brains grow new cells all the time (neurogenesis). This is why we can continue to benefit from daily mental stimulation.
Because the brain is capable of producing new neurons, it follows that we are also capable of learning new things throughout our lives, and adapt and change our thinking to a far greater degree than we once thought. This is called neuroplasticity and it gives our brains far greater flexibility than was previously thought possible.
So, no excuses about being ‘too old’ to change our thinking or learn something new!
How can we maintain good brain health?
1. Take up a form of exercise
There are huge neurological benefits that come from physical activity.
- Decreased stress
- Increased energy, focus, and attention
- Improved memory
- Improved blood circulation
- Decreased ‘brain fog’
People exercise for different reasons, but only a few people exercise with the intent to improve their brain functioning.
Exercise can help ward off cognitive decline, and some studies have shown that engaging in a program of regular exercise improved cognitive function in people who already had memory problems. Exercise may be particularly advantageous for people who carry the APOE4 gene variant, which makes people more susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease.
While exercising, oxygen saturation occurs in areas of the brain associated with rational thinking as well as social, physical, and intellectual performance. Additionally, exercise reduces stress hormones and increases the number of neurotransmitter chemicals like serotonin and norepinephrine, which are known to accelerate information processing. You can read more about the connection between exercise and the brain in our article How exercise can lead to better brain health.
If you are looking to target and enhance a specific element of brain health through exercise, the following list may be useful:
- For concentration: yoga, tai chi, aerobic classes;
- For memory: aerobics, walking, and cycling;
- To improve blood circulation: cardio activities (walking, cycling, running, swimming);
- For stress and anxiety: yoga;
- For depression: aerobic and resistance training.
Even people who engage in gentle forms of exercise, like gardening, are less likely to suffer from age-related neurological conditions. If intense exercise is not for you, even gentle exercise can bring your brain a breath of oxygen-rich air. Much of the scientific community agrees that walking is one of the best and most accessible forms of physical activity, and gentle on the joints.
My best advice? Start adding a little exercise to your routine, in small intervals at first. The secret is not the quantity, but rather the consistency and frequency of the practice. If you’re not a natural gym person and are looking for some ideas and inspiration for ways to stay active, you can find lots of these on the fitness and exercise section of our site.
2. Manage your diet
A Mediterranean diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and olive oil, and includes moderate amounts of fish, poultry, and dairy products, while limiting red meat. This eating pattern has long been recognized as promoting better cardiovascular health, lowering the risk of certain cancers, and there is evidence to suggest that it can also contribute to protecting against cognitive decline.
Recent extensive studies have shown that consumption of oily fish is particularly associated with reduced risk of cognitive impairment. The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil certainly play important roles in brain function and development. We also need to ensure that we are getting sufficient vitamins B6, B12, and Vitamin E in our diets.
Considering that the brain is circa 60% water there is also a strong case for keeping our bodies and brains hydrated. If water levels are too low, our brains cannot function effectively and must work harder than normal to complete everyday tasks. Dehydration can lead to confusion, drowsiness, and memory loss, so staying hydrated is vital. Research has shown that as little as 1% dehydration can negatively affect your mood.
3. Limit your consumption of Alcohol
Balance and moderation are key here. There is some evidence that low levels of alcohol consumption can reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. One study found that people over the age of 65 who drank up to one alcoholic beverage a day had about half the risk of cognitive decline as non-drinkers over a period of five to seven years.
Another study reported that resveratrol, a compound in red wine, broke down beta-amyloid (abnormal deposits of protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease) in laboratory experiments, suggesting that red wine in particular may be protective, but further study is needed. In the meantime, experts do not recommend drinking alcohol to fend off cognitive decline.
When it comes to heavy consumption of alcohol, studies have proven that this can have damaging effects on the body and the brain. When a person drinks to excess the liver cannot filter alcohol quickly enough. This can lead to long-lasting effects on the neurotransmitters in the brain, destroy brain cells, and shrink brain tissue.
The precise effect on the brain depends on the individual’s overall health, how much they drink, and how well their liver functions. So, whilst the jury is still out on any benefits from light drinking, heavy drinking has definitely been proven to be damaging to the brain.
4. Get sufficient sleep
Getting consistent, good-quality sleep is known to improve overall health and prevent cognitive decline. Our bodies rely on a certain amount of regular sleep for a variety of essential functions, many of them in the brain. People who regularly sleep less than the recommended seven to eight hours a night tend to score lower on tests of mental function. This may be because learning and memories are consolidated during sleep.
Sleep disorders and sleep disruption sadly become more common as we age. These may affect cognitive function, particularly memory and learning. Daytime sleepiness, which can be a symptom of a sleep disorder, has also been associated with an increased risk for dementia. This makes it even more important to focus on good sleep strategies as we age, such as going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, and having a good pre-bedtime routine.
For more suggestions on how to help get a better night’s sleep, visit the sleep and fatigue section of our site.
5. Ensure regular mental stimulation
Many researchers believe that key to maintaining a healthy brain is the habit of staying mentally active as you age. In one study, mentally alert people in their 70s and 80s were asked how often they did six activities that required active mental engagement — reading, writing, doing crossword puzzles, playing board or card games, engaging in group discussions, and playing music. In the following five years, the 33% of those who engaged in mentally stimulating activities the most were found to be half as likely to go on to develop mild cognitive impairment as those in the lowest third. An earlier report found a similar link between brain-stretching activities and a lower risk of Alzheimer’s.
It can help to think of your brain as a muscle. The more you are exercising it, the bigger and stronger your hippocampus and prefrontal cortex gets. This is important because the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus are the two areas of the brain that are most susceptible to neurodegenerative diseases and normal cognitive decline in ageing.
If you’re interested in some suggestions for the types of activities you can try, here are 20 ways to help keep your brain sharp.
6. Actively seek out social contact
Social interaction can have profound effects on your health and longevity. In fact, there’s evidence that strong social connections may be just as important as physical activity and a healthy diet.
Strong social interactions can help protect your memory and cognitive function in several ways as you age. Research shows that people with strong social ties are less likely to experience cognitive decline than those who are alone. By contrast, depression, which often goes hand in hand with loneliness, correlates to faster cognitive decline.
Having a strong network of people who support and care for you can also help lower your stress levels. Social activities require you to engage several important mental processes, including attention and memory, which can bolster cognition. Frequent engagement with others helps strengthen neural networks, slowing normal age-related declines.
If you’re looking for ways to connect with new people you might like to have a read of our article How to meet new people. In the meantime, you might be interested in our article 7 ways to tackle feelings of loneliness.
7. Keep on learning
The concept of lifelong learning is one that you may be familiar with. Developing new skills, learning new information, and remaining curious can all help towards reducing cognitive decline. Remaining alert and interested in the world around you is one excellent way to keep the neurons in your brain firing and active.
In the learning section of our site you’ll find plenty of fun ideas about how to get creative at home, as well as stimulating activities to take up like birdwatching and beekeeping. You’ll also find a list of interesting courses that might catch your eye. Alternatively, there are numerous free online learning websites, such as Coursera or Future Learn which offer short courses in almost everything from Meditation to Engineering, and Oceanography to Mindfulness.
There have been many discussions about the efficacy of ‘brain training’. To date, there are many apps and other products which claim to help stave off cognitive decline. The jury is still out with most of these. MyCognition is worth a look as it has been developed in conjunction with The University of Cambridge and with support from the NHS.
Interestingly, good old Sudoku has so far fared best in studies of activities which help reduce cognitive decline. The best results for any brain training interventions seem to be achieved with regular usage over time rather than as a quick fix.
The best advice is finding something to study or some way of learning that interests you, do it regularly and stay curious, knowing that you are perfectly capable of learning new things at any age.
For more learning ideas and inspiration you can visit the Rest Less learning resources here.
8. Reduce anxiety
Anxiety is known to be harmful to the brain, but how? Evidence exists that individuals who experience long-term and sustained anxiety are 48% more likely to develop cognitive decline. This is due to cortisol (the stress hormone) which, if present over the long-term damages parts of the brain involved in memory and complex thinking.
Working towards minimizing your stress, or viewing certain stress as positive, can benefit your brain health. ‘Reframing’, a technique employed in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can be extremely helpful in reducing anxiety. There are also many well documented techniques such as mindfulness which can help manage anxiety.
For more information, you might want to have a read of our article 7 tips for coping with feelings of stress and anxiety, or to take a look at the healthy mind section of our site.
In summary, the brain is an important organ and needs our support.
There are many things we can do to help keep our brain healthy which will assist us in remaining mentally sharp as we age. Cognitive decline is not inevitable and making some changes to old habits, and incorporating new ones, can pay us great dividends in terms of brain health in the longer term.
What do you do to look after and maintain your brain health? We’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation on the health section of the Rest Less community forum, or leave a comment below.
Pam Kingsland is an HCPC Registered Psychologist and an Accredited Master Coach with a specific interest in Brain Health and Mental Wellness. An Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, Founding Member of the Association for Coaching and member of the Neuroleadership Institute she can be contacted through Orgshakers for whom she works as a Senior Consultant.