Our brains make us who we are. They contain our memories and emotions, our hopes and our dreams. Most of us therefore care a lot about keeping our brains in good working order for as long as possible. While some decline in brain functioning with age is inevitable, and you cannot completely avoid all brain injuries or illness, there are four pretty simple things that we can all do to help keep our brains healthy. So here are 4 tips for keeping your brain healthy.
Brain Tip 1:
Regular exercise is the best thing that you can do for your brain. Hands down. More than 2,000 peer reviewed papers support this conclusion. Of everything that scientists have investigated, including dozens of different special diets and dietary supplements, regular exercise has shown the largest and most consistent beneficial effect on brain functioning. Exercise slows age related declines in memory and concentration and can often reduce symptoms of depression. Regular exercise will not prevent you from developing Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease if you are susceptible, but it appears to delay the onset of symptoms and slows disease progression. Likewise, exercise cannot prevent you from having a stroke, but you are likely to recover in a shorter period of time and the amount of permanent damage will be reduced. Ditto for recovery from head trauma or toxin exposure. There is essentially no aspect of brain functioning that does not benefit from regular exercise. And the amount of exercise that you need to do in order to get all of these benefits is surprisingly small. About a half hour or so a day of moderately brisk exercise seems to be enough to get these benefits. Furthermore, it is never too late to start getting that benefit. Your brain can benefit from regular exercise even if you start exercising at an advanced age or after experiencing a stroke or the onset of a brain disease. Of course, the benefits are greater if you have been active your whole life, but better late than never.
Your brain uses a lot of resources in proportion to its size. About a quarter of the calories that an average person burns in a day, are consumed by their brain. Even when nerve cells are not doing anything, they require a lot of energy just to maintain a state of readiness to send a signal. And it is not just calories your brain needs. Your brain also needs amino acids from proteins to make the neurotransmitters it uses to communicate with other neurons, as well as fatty acids for ongoing repair of neuronal cell membranes and their electrically insulating myelin sheaths. Your body does not want to expend all of these resources unless it thinks that you are going to need to use your brain. And what your body thinks that your brain is for is finding food and evading predators. The only way that your body knows that your brain is doing anything is if you tell it to move around. Your body does not know that when you are sitting in front of a computer screen at work, your brain is effectively serving the same function as it would if you went out into the woods to hunt and gather. However, when you move around reasonably briskly, and more or less continually, for a half hour or more, your body produces a dose of trophic factors for your brain. These trophic factors help keep your brain cells alive and healthy.
The trophic factor survival boost from exercise only lasts about a day or so and the effects of any extra exercise do not carry over to the next day. So, it is the frequency of exercise, rather than the intensity or duration of the exercise that matters most. The type of exercise doesn’t matter very much. You do not need to go to a gym or hire a personal trainer. Taking your dog for a walk in the park will probably just about cover it, just as long as you do it, or something like it, almost every day. Since exercise is also good for your heart, lungs, kidneys, digestive system, weight control, and bone density, there really is no down side to getting about a half hour or more of reasonably energetic physical activity every day.
Brain Tip 2:
The next best thing that you can do for your brain is to use it. Synaptic connections in your brain are maintained on a “use it or lose it” basis, so staying mentally active helps keep your brain calls connected. Playing brain games, doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku will tend to stabilize the specific connection necessary for doing those tasks, but for an overall brain workout, human social interactions are a better bet. Face-to-face conversation with other people activates both your visual and auditory cortex, including the areas devoted to facial and voice recognition as well as those used for evaluating the emotional content of words and their intent. It also activates your language centers, both those for decoding and producing speech. Since we humans are a social species, even mildly positive social interactions will also tend to stimulate your reward centers. Carrying on a conversation with one or more people makes use of both your short term memory for remembering the content of a question, and your long term memory for retrieving information. If the conversation involves some intellectual content, such as working together to accomplish a task or solve a problem, that pretty much activates your whole brain.
Brain Tip 3:
Maintaining a healthy balanced diet, rich in many fruits and vegetables, is the third thing that you can do for your brain. Your brain needs all of the nutrients that the rest of your body needs but it is even more affected by what you eat. Since your brain has very high energy usage and is highly dependent on oxygen and oxidative breakdown of sugar molecules for fuel, your brain is also vulnerable to damage from free radicals produced by this chemical reaction. Your brain therefore benefits even more than the rest of your body from a diet rich in antioxidants, such as those found in many fruits and vegetables.
Brain Tip 4:
Nearly all of the chemicals which human consume recreationally are bad for our brains, but there do appear to be two exceptions. Moderate caffeine and alcohol consumption, that is, one or two cups of coffee or tea a day and one or two glasses of wine or other alcoholic drinks per day, do appear to be beneficial. High levels of caffeine or alcohol intake are bad for your health, but low level consumption appears to be good for your brain. The benefits of low level alcohol consumption appear to be due to a powerful antioxidant, derived from the breakdown of red blood cells which remains in your blood stream for about 24 hours after you consume a small amount of alcohol. The benefits of caffeine appear to be due to a low level stimulation of most, if not all, of your neurons. Caffeine causes calcium to be released from special storehouses inside of your neurons. The resulting increase in free calcium causes more of the chemicals (neurotransmitters) which to pass signals from one neuron to another to be released. Having a little bit of caffeine in your body therefore causes nerve cells to send a few extra signals. Since, as we have just mentioned above, connections which are used more, are more likely to be maintained, that little extra bit of stimulation tends to increase the number of connections that are saved. You will notice that the mechanisms of the beneficial effects of moderate caffeine and alcohol consumption overlap the effects of increased mental activity and an antioxidant rich diet. So, if you have a family history of alcohol abuse, if your heart races when you drink caffeine, or if your religion forbids you to consume either drug, you can just skip this tip and focus more on Brain Tips 2&3.
So what should you do to try and keep your brain healthy? Maybe you should try and get together regularly with a few friends and go for a walk, bicycle ride, or swim and then stop someplace for a cup of coffee or tea and/or a nice plate of fruit or vegetables and engage in some stimulating conversation.