The relationships between our brain and body and the world around us are complex. What you do or don’t do can significantly change how your health and wellbeing.
A healthy brain is determined by both biological and physiological factors — genes, hormones, the immune system, nutrition, exercise, and other lifestyle choices.
Social, psychological and environmental factors including relationships, stress, emotions, mindset, life events and current circumstances also contribute to your brain health.
Each element can impact others in a multi-directional and dynamic way. Example, your thoughts can influence your physical health (which is why chronic stress can lead to abnormal heart rhythms or heart attacks).
Everyone wants to live an active, vibrant life for as long as possible. And that goal depends on robust brain health. You can’t do much about your genes, but other physiological, social and environmental factors can be modified to improve your brain.
Our brains naturally decline if we do nothing to protect them. However, if we intervene early, we can slow the decline process — it’s easier to protect a healthy brain than to try to repair damage once it is extensive.
You can improve your lifestyle habits to promote a highly healthy brain — one free of physical or mental illness, disease, and pain. We have more control over our ageing brains than we realise.
These habits are just a reminder — you already know the importance of these lifestyle choices. It pays to make a conscious effort to help yourself — your brain will thank you.
1. Healthy brains know the long-term value of brain food
That means eating lots of foods associated with slowing cognitive decline — blueberries, vegetables (leafy greens — kale, spinach, broccoli), whole grains, getting protein from fish and legumes and choosing healthy unsaturated fats (olive oil) over saturated fats (butter).
The connection between what goes into your body and how your brain performs is a strong one. The best diet should also be good for your brain, your heart and blood vessels.
“Omega-3 fats from fish or nuts fight inflammation associated with neurodegeneration. Fruit and vegetables combat age-related oxidative stress that causes wear and tear on brain cells,” says Dr Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry and ageing, and director of the Longevity Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior, University of California, Los Angeles.
2. A healthy brain creates calm: It really matters!
Find your moment or place of calm and separate yourself from chronic stress.
Chronic stress can change the wiring of our brains.“Stress shrinks the brain’s memory centres, and the stress hormone cortisol temporarily impairs memory,” says Dr Small.
To reverse stress and improve your mood and memory, adopt relaxation methods like meditation. “Meditation even rewires the brain and improves measures of chromosomes’ telomere (protective cap) length, which predicts longer life expectancy” argues Dr Small.
Find your place or moment of calm, and do something pleasurable that makes you come alive — a personal passion project can help you destress.
3. Even 20 minutes of daily brisk walking is beneficial to maintain a healthy brain
Physical activity is one of the best things you can do for your brain and body. You already know the countless benefits of exercising.
Dozens of research have found that that nearly any type of physical activity — walking, running, cycling, minimal weight-lifting and even mindful exercise such as yoga contribute to improved cognitive performance.
Exercise stimulates the brain to release brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a molecule essential for repairing brain cells and creating connections between them.
Physical activity also boosts endorphins, which can lift your mood. “Aerobic exercise helps improve the health of brain tissue by increasing blood flow to the brain and reducing the chances of injury to the brain from cholesterol buildup in blood vessels and from high blood pressure,” says Dr Joel Salinas, a neurologist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.
A simple walk outdoors gets you away from digital devices and into nature. You’ll do your best thinking when walking.
4. Engaging in mentally stimulating activities creates new brain connections and more cognitive reserve
Stimulating and challenging the brain helps it stay fit and firing. Spend some time in new thoughts.
To improve your brain health, try to do one activity that challenges the mind every day — spend some time in new thoughts. The desire to learn and understand other people, ideas, cultures and concepts can boost your brain.
“…higher cognitive activity endows the brain with a greater ability to endure the effects of brain pathologies compared to a person with lower cognitive engagement throughout life,” says David S. Knopman, M.D., a clinical neurologist involved in research in late-life cognitive disorders.
Lifelong learning and mentally challenging work build cognitive reserve. Find reasonably challenging activities you can practice regularly — try activities that combine mental, social and physical challenges.
5. Make meaningful connections to stay sharp
We’re social creatures — meaningful social connections make us happier. Happiness makes your brain work better.
Psychological studies show that conversation stimulates the brain. It may seem effortless to many, but it requires a complex combination of skills including attention, memory, thinking, speech and social awareness.
A study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that better social interaction can help protect the brain against dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Social connections are as important to our flourishing as the need for food, safety, and shelter. The urge to connect is a life-long human need.
Matthew Lieberman, a social psychologist, neuroscientist, and author of Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, sees the brain as the center of the social self. He writes in his book, “It’s hard to find meaning in what we do if at some level it doesn’t help someone else or make someone happier.”
Researchers at the Oregon Health & Science University and the University of Michigan have suggested that human interaction and conversation could be the keys to maintaining brain function as we grow older.
Supportive friends, family and social connections helps you live longer, happier and healthier. Socialising reduces the harmful effects of stress
6. A healthy brain doesn’t overlook or underappreciate quality sleep and “wakeful rest”
Sleep is the number one, fundamental bedrock of good health. A good night sleep every night should be a priority, not a luxury.
“Without good sleep, we see increased anxiety and stress. Sleep is restorative, helping you be more mentally energetic and productive,” advises Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D., founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas and author of Make Your Brain Smarter.
Apart from getting a good and quality night sleep, make time for “wakeful rest” — it pays to plan breaks in between your busy schedule. Plan downtime on your calendar.
After a busy day, give your brain time to recover — sit back, close your eyes and let your mind wander (spontaneous thought in our wakeful life)— in the knowledge that your brain is busy consolidating information.
In a study on Boosting Long-Term Memory via Wakeful Rest, the authors found that “wakeful rest” — without any external stimulation — allows the brain to consolidate the memories of what it has learned.
It is never too early or too late to start living more healthily. Your daily habits have more impact on how long and how well you live — plan to eat well, take short walks, engage in mental stimulation, and manage your social connections for better brain health.