At a glance
Give Your Mind A Workout
We all know that that taking care of our brain is important — especially as we get older. And as the Medical School at Harvard University puts it: “every brain changes with age, and mental function changes along with it. Mental decline is common, and it's one of the most feared consequences of aging. But cognitive impairment is not inevitable.”
And sure — a decline in thinking and memory skills rank among the top fears people have as they age. However, there are steps we can take to help our mind “stay young”: a healthy diet, regular exercise, not smoking, and other life choices are all proven to protect our memory and cognitive skill.
But did you know that many of your so-called “ordinary” daily activities can help your brain stay in shape?
So, what does science tell us about taking care of our brains every day? Here’s some food for thought…
1. Keep Your Mind Moving
We all know the benefits of exercise on our physical health. However, living a mentally active life is important as well. Just as our bodies grow stronger with physical exercise, mental exercise shapes the “muscle” in our head.
And while brain activity is healthier than a dormant mind, the activities that require us to think the hardest have the most impact on our brains. In other words, if you’re a master at solitaire, it may be a good idea to ditch the so simple and familiar a task and try something harder — like learn a new language or participate in other brain-boosting activities instead. At least, that’s what researchers at the Medical School at Harvard University say. And those people are pretty smart!
Plus, a bunch of other smart people at the Mayo Clinic suggest even more ways to support your memory and cognitive power. For instance, they recommend taking alternative routes when driving to make you think more about this otherwise routine experience, learn to play a musical instrument to keep your mind in tune, and even volunteer at a local school or community organization — which actually leads into point number 2.
We all enjoy interacting with loved ones, friendly co-workers, and even a fellow store-goer at the supermarket. However, did you know that this everyday activity benefits your brain? That’s right, clinical studies show that social interaction benefits our mental and physical health.
Research confirms that social interaction can have a positive impact on the brain — and that it protects memory formation and retention as well.
- In 2018, researchers from prestigious academic institutions including Ohio State University and Stanford University collaborated on the research article, “A Larger Social Network Enhances Novel Object Location Memory and Reduces Hippocampal Microgliosis in Aged Mice.” This extensive body of research suggested that having a larger social network can positively influence the brain as it ages.
- A separate study, “Ten Minutes Of Talking Improves Memory And Test Performance,” found that just 10 minutes of socializing with another person can help improve memory and test performance. Researchers examined the connection between the frequency of social interaction and level of mental function. After experimentation, they discovered a direct relationship between participants’ social interaction and cognitive function. In other words, the higher the level of talking, the better the ability to carry out multiple brain-based skills.
3. Be Physically Active
A review published in Genes — a peer-reviewed scientific journal that covers genes, genetics, and genomics — examined the connection between physical activity and brain health. The abstract notes many studies have shown that physical activity can reverse at least some of the unwanted effects of sedentary lifestyle and can also play a role in delaying both aging and disease in the brain. Furthermore, physical activity improves cognitive processes and memory and even promote a sense of wellbeing.
Cleveland Clinic included physical exercise as one component of their renowned “6 Pillars of Brain Health.” Regular aerobic exercise such as running, swimming, or biking can cultivate new brain cell growth and preserve existing brain cells as well. More intense exercises like strength training can boost brain power, improve mood, and even enhance concentration and increase decision-making skills.
The connection between physical activity and brain health was put to the test in a study by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. The study documented changes in long-term memory and cerebral blood flow in 30 participants with memory problems aged 60 or older. Researchers found that a 1-year workout program showed benefits for older people at risk for dementia.
- Half of the participants underwent 12 months of aerobic exercise training. The other half only stretched.
- After 1 year, the aerobic exercise group enjoyed 47% improvement in memory scores; the participants belonging to the stretching group experienced minimal change.
- Brain imaging, an important factor in the assessment of moderate to severe head injury, showed increased blood flow into the anterior cingulate cortex and hippocampus in the exercise group. Both components of the brain play key roles in memory function.
4. Care For Your Heart
The benefits of having a healthy cardiovascular system go beyond your heart. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention stated that the health of our brain and our heart are connected.
- By keeping our heart healthy, we also lower the risk for brain problems such as stroke and dementia.
- Unhealthy habits that cause plaque buildup or blood clots can block blood flow to the heart and damage blood vessels. This can lead to cardiovascular problems such as a heart attack.
- When it comes to the brain, the same idea holds true. A stroke is caused by a clot which blocks a blood vessel in the brain and could even result in a burst blood vessel.
The CDC also noted that controlling blood pressure, eating healthy foods, saying no to smoking, and remaining active all help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and other brain and heart-related health concerns.
5. Get Plenty of Sleep
In the American Heart Association’s “Sleep Your Way to a Smarter Brain,” Marie-Pierre St-Onge, an associate professor at Columbia University in New York City, proclaimed, “Sleep is absolutely instrumental in cognitive function, mental acuity and the ability to concentrate and learn new things.”
- St-Onge communicated that our brains undergo a “cleanup process” when we sleep. Our bodies feel pressured to go sleep, and our brains wipe out that pressure which helps us feel fresh and ready to go in the morning.
The Sleep Foundation stated that neurodegenerative and neurodevelopmental problems within the brain have been found to be linked with an increased risk of insomnia. This can throw off circadian rhythm and our body’s ability to perceive daily cues that help manage our sleep-wake cycle.
- Further, a lack of sleep may increase the risk of developing certain mental illnesses. This is why it is important that we take action to improve our sleep. And though there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” solution to better sleep, St-Onge recommends practicing good sleep hygiene, banishing bright lights, and avoiding heavy meals before bed as ways to achieve a good night’s rest.
The expression, “time flies when you’re having fun,” is commonly used by people of all ages. While that old adage may be cliché, it applies to brain health. Many of us lead busy, exciting lives which may cause us to lose track of taking care of our bodies, including our brain.
As we get older, our brain counts on us to support it by taking care of our heart, getting plenty of sleep, and more. And while many believe that mental decline is just another part of aging, there are multiple steps we can take to support our brain and sharpen our memory — no matter what the number of candles on our birthday cake say.