An unfortunate reality is that unhealthy lifestyles lead to diseases like obesity, diabetes, and brain-related health problems, all of which increase the risk of stroke, dementia, and Alzheimer’s as well. The good news is that these conditions can be managed and even prevented by a healthy lifestyle.
Commit to a Healthy Brain Lifestyle
Lifestyle begins with an attitude that declares, “I am committed to a life of healthy choices.” You can become a champion of a proactive brain health lifestyle and actually serve as a role model to others, particularly your children and grandchildren.
We already know about several basic preventative measures to take every day for brain health, like wearing a helmet when riding a bike, wearing a seatbelt when in the car, and being cautious with activities that have the potential to cause head injuries. But in addition to these safety tips, research shows that brain health is promoted by a lifestyle that includes stress reduction, consumption of antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, physical exercise, socialization and exposure to enriched environments with the novel and complex. A conscious choice to review your current lifestyle and begin implementing change within each of these five domains to the brain health lifestyle is critical. Additionally, lifestyle is proactive, energized and lifelong. A lifestyle that promotes health will be effective at any age, but the earlier you get started, the better the outcome. Your goal should be to make the brain health lifestyle a routine in your life.
Adoption of a brain-healthy lifestyle can occur on an individual basis and on a more macro or societal basis. The individual basis is probably most important and most efficient, as you have direct control over the change. However, every nation should consider prioritizing brain health and implement policies that reinforce this priority. Now let’s take a closer look at the five critical areas for brain health and what you can do to keep your brain young, fit, and sharp!
Five Critical Areas of Brain Health: An Overview
The following provides a blueprint for the development of a brain health environment filled with the novel and complex. The brain health lifestyle incorporates five distinct but integrated components: socialization, physical activity, mental stimulation, spirituality and nutrition. Each of these components, or “slices to the brain health pie,” encompasses research based activities that have been documented to reduce the risk of dementia or to foster brain health. Together, these activities define the brain health lifestyle, which can be effectively applied in a culture committed to change.
The first critical area to think about in order to promote a healthy brain lifestyle is the area of socialization. Research in both animals and humans indicates socialization is important to health and for reducing the risk of dementia. It is important, therefore, to remain integrated in the community, to build a growing network of family and friends, and to always have a role and purpose for getting up each day. Retirement, as a national policy, does not make sense for a nation that prioritizes brain health for its citizens. Retirement promotes isolation and passivity, which reduces the likelihood of building brain reserve and drives a brain toward disease. Socialization is so vital to brain health. However, I do not want to convey that one domain is more important than the other.
Physical activity relates to brain health because 25 percent of the blood, oxygen and glucose from each heartbeat goes directly to the human brain. While the human brain weighs only two to four pounds on average, it demands more from each heartbeat than any other part of the body! It truly is the “central” nervous system. Knowing this simple fact, you can better appreciate why physical activity promotes brain health. The human brain consumes such a high level of glucose, oxygen and blood because it cannot function without this energy source. Cells thrive from such blood flow and metabolize glucose for brain function, permitting rapid and efficient information processing. Even a brief period of slowed or no blood flow to a particular region of the brain can result in structural damage in the form of stroke, and this leads to loss of such functions as movement, language and even personality change.
We have learned that novel and complex environments help to activate the cortex and conscious information processing that promotes development of brain reserve. Our ability to engage our brain daily in the novel and complex fosters mental stimulation and promotes brain health. This includes new learning, which actually involves a neurophysiological event or series of events that change our neural systems, our neural chemistry, and our brain function. This process can also assist with new brain cell development, or neurogenesis.
Animal studies have demonstrated neurogenesis in rodents exposed to enriched environments that include novel and complex stimuli. Human neurogenesis was demonstrated in a publication in 1998, with the neuroanatomical structure critical to learning, the hippocampus, representing the site of neurogenesis in both animals and humans. This supports the idea that the hippocampus and the role of learning are fundamental to our neural health and that our brains are agile and can adapt favorably in response to healthy stimuli. Environments that provide novel and complex stimuli are those most likely to be deemed “enriched,” with the greatest likelihood of promoting brain reserve. Brain reserve refers to the development of increased cellular connections (synapses) that help to defend against or delay the onset of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
A critical issue for everyone to remember is that the most sophisticated system for thinking, creating, problem solving and basic academics is the human brain. It is critical for our society to turn inward for solving problems rather than relying only on gadgets or devices to do the work!
We all lead very busy lifestyles, and surely, like many others, you feel the high stress of a fast-paced environment. It’s no wonder we’re doing so much damage to our own health because of it. This area, which I refer to as spirituality, addresses the need for all of us to slow down, to introspect, and to reduce stress in our lives. By engaging in a slower and more reflective life, we can impact our health and brains in a positive way.
Research indicates that animals exposed to environments that are too stimulating experience slowed brain development. Our own pace in life tends to be rapid and probably unhealthy. While most of us realize that we are going too fast and that we are involved in too many activities simultaneously, we have a hard time knowing how to slow down.
The brain demands stimulation, but it also can function best when it has rhythm and symmetry. Our hectic pace raises the probability of mental chaos, stress, and reduced cognitive efficiency. It also can lead to emotional breakdown. A brain health environment supports time for oneself, time to slow down, and time to keep the brain energized. I refer to this generally as spirituality. Of interest is the fact that an entire new field of study called neurotheology has emerged to study the relationship between spirituality, religion and the brain.
Food has the ability to alter thought processes, mood and behavior. There is an entire new field of study called nutritional neurosciences that recognizes the impact of food on the function of the human brain. We also know that the human brain is 60 percent fat; indeed the brain is the fattest part of the body. It is believed that the lipid, or fatty, substance of the brain helps to insulate neural tracts, propelling information in a rapid and efficient manner. A brain that loses fat evinces slowed information processing, a maladaptive reality.
In recognition of this fact and our better understanding of the role of “free radicals” that originate as cellular breakdown with oxygen serving as a major catalyst, we can propose specific foods that supplement omega-3 fatty acids (good fat for the brain) and antioxidants that combat free radicals.
About the author: Paul David Nussbaum, PhD, is a clinical neuropsychologist who specializes in aging across the lifespan and brain health, and for more than 20 years has been caring for those suffering from dementia and related disorders. Dr. Nussbaum is an adjunct associate professor in neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and lives outside of Pittsburgh, PA.
Excerpted from Save Your Brain: The 5 Things You Must Do to Keep Your Mind Young and Sharp copyright — 2010 by Paul David Nussbaum, PhD, reprinted with permission from the McGraw Hill Companies.