The beginning of a new year usually starts with resolutions–to eat healthier, to exercise more, or to improve quality of life in some way. Keeping your brain healthy, understanding how the brain works, and learning how to maximize brain function should be added to that list! Good mental health or “cognitive fitness” are as important to a good overall quality of life as physical health– in fact, the two are related!
You can get started on your brain-y new year’s resolution by reading our Successful Aging & Your Brain booklet, which explains how people of all ages can improve their brain fitness (pages 18 to 32) while also focusing on how the brain (specifically memory) works and what types of brain diseases and disorders can affect adults later in life. The ways to keep your brain healthy can be broken down into four steps–or factors–of successful aging that have been scientifically proven to make a difference.
Our short Successful Aging & Your Brain video outlines the four factors that contribute to a brain-healthy lifestyle.
The first factor is exercise and physical activity. Exercise increases levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor that supports and nourishes brain cells. Exercise–in particular aerobic activity such as walking, biking, and running–also enhances memory and learning. Physical activity increases the rate at which neurons are generated in the hippocampus and the number of glia, brain cells that support neurons and speed neural processing. If aerobics isn’t your thing, all types of exercise including endurance exercises, strength exercises, flexibility exercises, and balance exercises, help to maintain and improve brain health.
The second factor of successful aging and the brain is reducing vascular risk factors (including the risk of diabetes) through a good diet, exercise, and medication when necessary. As a rule, what is good for your heart is also good for your brain! Eat right by replacing saturated fats (in animal products) with unsaturated fats (in olive, canola, sunflower, and other oils), eliminating trans fat (in processed foods and often listed as hydrogenated vegetable oil) from your diet, and eating foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids (found in cold-water fish). Reducing salt intake, which can cause high blood pressure, is important as well. Eating more fruits and vegetables, such as berries and citrus fruits that contain antioxidants, seems to protect the brain and cardiovascular system against some of the effects of aging.
The third factor is talking to your doctor about managing your health conditions and any medications you take. Certain medications such as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors used to treat depression can cause cognitive impairment, for example. Make sure to have an open conversation with your doctor about your mental health and any cognitive problems you may be experiencing.
The fourth and final factor is mental exercise, social connection, and adequate sleep. Try new activities that are intellectually stimulating. As our brain ages, learning new skills, such as how to play an instrument, creates a “cognitive reserve” of denser and stronger nerve-cell connections in the brain. Our brain thrives on learning and wants to be engaged!
Another way to stay mentally engaged is to socialize with others. Evidence suggests that social engagement helps prevent dementia. How interpersonal relationships benefit the brain is not well understood, but it may be in part because they promote new learning and reduce stress levels. Ways to stay socially engaged include seeing friends and family regularly, getting involved in community projects, and volunteering.
And don’t forget to get a good night’s sleep! Research shows adequate sleep is necessary to consolidate memories. Those who don’t sleep well don’t learn as well and have less energy and attention throughout the day. There are more than 70 different sleep disorders and most can be managed effectively once diagnosed. Steps to maintain good sleep hygiene include keeping a regular bedtime and waking hour, avoiding caffeine or stimulants later in the day, and not using your phone or other electronics while in bed.
If you’d like a daily reminder of the four factors, our Successful Aging & Your Brain bookmark is a handy item you can print and keep with you as you navigate your day!
– Amanda Bastone