The brain, like many other parts of the body feels the effects of aging. It creaks in an intellectual sort of fashion. But the old gray matter can do something that the rest of the bits that creak on the old body cannot do. It can rebuild itself with new matter as the older bits wear out.
This relatively new piece of information conflicts with the older belief that when the brain cells died out then they were irreplaceable. Until recently doctors thought that the brain was like every other part of the body and stopped making fresh neural connections after the body reached maturity.
Brain functions that were seen to be affected as people aged were just considered as normal progression but we now know that is not the case. We now understand that lifestyle has a large part to play in keeping our brains in tip top condition.
The best tips to keep your brain in good condition follow, and by keeping your brain healthy then the rest of your body will benefit too. The way to give your brain the best chance of staying in good condition is to give it a good work out whilst at the same time keeping yourself in good condition.
Some good ideas that can help to improve your brain power and maintain your intellect follow.
Nowadays the medical fraternity tends to say if it’s good for the heart then it’s good for the brain. All of the recent studies have identified that exercise is good for you in so many ways, and the brain responds exceptionally well too. It appears that we can form neurons more easily in a fit body and neurons are the building blocks of the brain. Exercise is also known to strengthen the associations between neurons and different areas of the brain. All of this has a beneficial effect leading to better memory and cognitive processes.
Even Alzheimer’s disease may be prevented, or at least slowed down according to newer studies which have found the decline in cognitive areas can be slowed by mental and physical exercise.
Keep your brain active and challenged
Stay inquisitive, keep wanting to understand new things – never stop wanting to learn. We have all spent some time in formal education but once we reached adulthood many of us did not have the time or willpower to learn new things. But now research is telling us that we must keep learning to keep our brain healthy.
A healthy brain can remember things, it can calculate, it can think. This is because neurons continue to regenerate, and a good way to keep the brain healthy is to keep it working. Learn new things, it can be anything from playing a guitar, taking up a new hobby, or working at a new language, finding out how your favorite dish is cooked and learning how to cook it yourself, even just staying up to date with world affairs can help. Researchers believe that anything that is new to the brain and gives it a bit of a challenge is good for you. By being active the brain continually regenerates new connections between nerve cells and this aids all its faculties including communication and knowledge retention.
Problem solving is a very good way to keep the brain stimulated and challenged and that can mean anything from using ‘problem solving’ books to everyday life situations. The positive result from this activity means that the memory continues to function, keeping Alzheimer’s disease or its earlier stages, called mild cognitive impairment at bay. In this respect the brain responds in the same way as the rest of the body. If it is used and exercised it continues to work better. To remain ‘intellectually on form’ requires us to exercise our brains, this is true of any age but especially so as we grow older.
Researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York carried out research which identified that older people who remained mentally active cut the risks of dementia developing by as much as 75%, in comparison to people who could not be motivated to use their brains. And even playing a game like bingo was seen to produce positive outcomes for people with Alzheimer’s disease.
Ways to stimulate your mind are as diverse as the people themselves. Finding something that you enjoy is important, some people prefer traveling, for others, more home based activities such as reading books, periodicals, magazines or newspapers fit the bill. Other homely folk like activities such as playing scrabble or chess, or just filling in crosswords or suduku puzzles to stimulate the brain. Whatever the activity, be it drawing, painting, dancing or learning a new language or learning to play a musical instrument, as long as you do it regularly you will benefit from it.
Remain in your circle of friends
For every three people who develop mild cognitive impairment, on average two of them will be men. This may be because men are generally less sociable than women. It has already been identified that the less social intercourse that one has as they become older then the higher the risk of mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease developing.
Being with others and communicating is a type of mental exercise because the brain is stimulated and if your friends can challenge your intellect then that is even better. Previous research has found that people with more social networks tend to live longer, perhaps because of the association with lower blood pressure.
The social aspect of someone’s life cannot easily be measured but we tend to know who is sociable. How often people communicate with others, face to face or by phone, chatting in the street, having a large circle of people who know you, how often you go out and how good a circle of close confidants that can discuss inner and private thoughts with you are all good ways to size up how sociable someone is. And the people who score the best have the least chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
One Harvard University study of 2,800 older men and women, all over 65 years identified that having five social contacts or more, this can be friends who visit regularly, people who phone often, clubs or social groups or religious groups, meant that the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease was lower than people who did not have such a network around them. Chatting with a friend or neighbor for only 10 minutes a day was seen to improve memory and it was just as effective at boosting test scores and intellectual aspects as more formal ideas on mental exercise. Everyday social interaction also generated improved cognitive achievements.
As part of the social environment don’t forget to laugh and have fun. It appears that humor decreases your stress levels and according to researchers it also improves your memory. Recently the medical profession has accepted that good feelings associated with humor are positive and may have healing qualities.
Resting and Sleeping
Research carried out on animals has shown that when deprived of sleep the number of neurons being developed drops. Whenever we do not get enough sleep it is thought that neurons do not repair themselves and cause thinking issues. The creation of new brain cells is a process known as neurogenesis and it is believed that it is most effective when the body and brain has enough sleep.
Although most experts acknowledge that more work must be done to further research the brain and its processes there is a belief that adequate sleep is required to maintain a healthy brain. It is said that this is the time when the brain is at its most active and transfers short term memories into the long term memory area of the hippocampus.
All memories are not the same and it seems that the brain carries out processing in two different ways. Information such as names, dates and general factual particulars are known as declarative memory whereas procedural memory ensures that we do not forget how to play the piano, drive a car or ride a bike or do any other day to day activity.
The belief is that both memory types must have sleep to function properly. Procedural memory processing must have rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, whilst slow wave sleep is best for declarative memory processing.
The processing of memory follows a cycle which seems to occur to ensure that things are learned or remembered. Initially there is a distinct order of brain cells activated whenever an activity occurs. When the person is asleep the brain repeats the same order but without any other distractions such as visual inputs. This happens every wake and sleep cycle. We learn something or do something when we are awake and then when we are sleeping the brain runs through the same process itself without any other inputs and when we waken the next morning our memory has been consolidated.
The sleep has another function too; it also primes the brain ready to learn the next day. Naps can be useful, according to research, because after a nap declarative memory appears to be reinforced and hence things are easier to remember.
Learn to chill out
Cortisol is a hormone which the body produces at times of stress and if people have chronic stress then more cortisol is present in the body for more of the time. However cortisol levels do not help the brain. Research has shown that high levels of cortisol in the body can cause the hippocampus to shrink, can cause brain cells to die and has a negative effect on the prefrontal cortex. The region of the brain responsible for all types of memory is the hippocampus, which just happens to have lots of cortisol receptors too making it easily affected by stress and stress related conditions.
Long term stress is known to affect the brain’s ability to operate normally in the areas of memory and learning. Research has shown that in younger adults learning difficulties can develop with too much stress over a longer period of time and in older people problems with memory become apparent.
Even short term stress is bad. The University of California conducted research which showed that even stress lasting just a few hours weakened communications between the neurons in the areas of the brain associated with memory and learning. Although in this case cortisol was not the culprit. Molecules then released a hormone known as corticotrophin. The result was disruption to the process which deals with collection of memories and the way that they are stored.
Learning how to deal with stress is the way to improve your chances of avoiding Alzheimer’s disease. Many ideas to reduce stress tend to have a ‘management feel’ about them. Tips include, don’t over schedule your day and avoid taking on any avoidable responsibilities or always seeing problems as opportunities. However there are other more general ideas like exercise regularly, learn yoga or meditation with the aim of being able to relax, have a massage, try to find a quiet place and find time to play your favorite sport or do your favorite hobby.
As with most conditions eating a healthy balanced diet is good for you. Keeping your brain in tip top condition requires good foods too. Mental decline has been said to be decreased by foods which contain lots of vitamin E, which is an antioxidant said to be successful in dealing with free radicals and other chemicals known to damage the body at the cellular level.
The best foods to eat are green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, spinach, kale, and cauliflower.
Researchers believe that having high levels of homocysteine in your blood increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. However it is also known that vitamin B, in the form of B6, B12 and folic acid are effective in lowering the levels of homocysteine and foods such as green leafy vegetables, grains and cereal are all good sources of it.
Regular eating and a healthy breakfast can also help. Research has noted that concentration, learning ability, mood, memory and reaction time are all affected when breakfast is missed. High fiber cereal for breakfast can give better cognitive skills, reduce the likelihood of depression and give a 10% decrease in tiredness according to researchers from Cardiff University. The fiber works by slowing down the body from breaking down the food in the stomach meaning that energy is released over a longer time.
Blueberries are now coming to the forefront of foods to eat as we strive to slow down our decline in cognitive areas. It has been said to improve short term memory and even help with loss of balance so common in old age, according to scientists from USDA at Tufts University.
It appears that being full of flavonoids, flavanols and anthocyanins contributes to blueberries appeal. Yet the actual processes which occur to help improve short term memory require further research. However there is a school of thought that says that they improve the inter connectivity between the neurons causing communications between regions in the brain to improve whilst helping neurons to rebuild themselves.
Your brain has a large percentage of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) in its make up and this substance is present in omega 3 essential fatty acids. By taking foods high in omega 3s means that the brain is getting lots of chemicals which contribute to its well being and enhances cell to cell communication between regions as well as assisting neurotransmitter release and nerve conduction. For your brain to function in a normal way DHA must be present and DHA rich diets improve the brain’s ability to learn.
Research from France shows that oils high in omega 3s, such as canola, flaxseed and walnut, if taken regularly can reduce a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by as much as 60% when compared to people who do not take these oils. Vegetables, if eaten regularly, can drop the risk about a third and eating fatty cold water fish such as herring, mackerel, salmon and sardines at least once a week can produce a 40% drop in the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
The researchers also identified that taking oils which are high in omega 6 could increase the possibility of memory issues. Oils in this category include sunflower and grape seed.
Drink to forget? …maybe not!
Research has found the opposite of the ‘drinking to forget’ situation. It has been found that consuming alcohol may actually be emphasizing the neural circuitry that is in control of the part of the memory which holds negative emotional experiences.
Wine, it seems, is different to beer and liquor in that it can reduce the risk of developing dementia. Up to 3 glasses per day are allowed and it appears to be the polyphenols in the wine which take care of the brain. Other evidence shows that polyphenols from grapes have factors which protect neural areas. However the key is moderation because many people can have problems because of drinking too much alcohol.
If it’s good for the heart then it’s good for the brain
More and more health professionals are agreeing that what is good for the heart will also help the brain. So to help keep the risks of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease developing to a minimum then you should care for your heart too.
It has already been seen that heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and high LDL (bad) cholesterol levels in the blood all negatively affect the risk of cognitive problems or dementia as we age.
Exercises for your brain
There is a system of exercises designed by Lawrence C. Katz, Ph.D., a professor of neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center, called neurobics. The central theme is to encourage thinking by changing routines or doing things in different ways. All five senses have to be included. The reasoning behind neurobics is that even small differences to a normal routine cause the brain to be stimulated, producing a positive outcome.
The more flexible you and your brain can be then the more benefit can be achieved. Neurobics is all about forcing nerve pathways and connections into use again with the aim of providing a healthy brain.
Some of the more popular examples of neurobics are, getting dressed with your eyes closed, driving to the shops or to work by a different route, if you are right handed do something that you would normally do with your right hand with your left hand, for example brush your teeth or tie your shoe laces ‘backwards’. Other things could be to use the TV remote or phone wrong handed. Try unlocking your door with your eyes shut, something as simple as going into a different shop or even doing two things at once like listen to music and thread a needle or smell flowers whilst reading a book.
According to research a very good way to stimulate different areas of your brain is to do everyday items with your other hand.