Article and Comment: How to keep your brain blooming
This amazing article discusses the known ways to keep your brain healthy. These are things you can do now and forever to keep your brain thriving throughout your life. 75% of the change in cognitive ability as you age is due to lifestyle factors, with only 25% due to genetics. This was found in a landmark study in Nature, published in 2012. This means that you have a massive influence on how your brain changes and functions as you get older. The best thing is that it is never to late or early to start. Your brain is able to produce new nerve connections into your 90’s.
Here are the biggest known factors that directly affect your brain function:
Regular exercise and an active lifestyle
– Regular exercise has consistently been shown to be the strongest factor. Exercise slows down and reverses the aging process in the brain. There are 2 major reasons for this. Firstly, exercise reduces the inflammatory process. This inhibits the growth on new nerve cells. Secondly, exercise increases the release of a critical nerve growth protein. This protein is called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). To raise your BDNF, you need to exercise at least 30 minutes on most days of the week. These 30 minutes need to be at a vigourous (feels puffed during your workout) level. Unfortunately, just taking a walk is not enough. So challenging yourself in your workout to be somewhat puffed is important. In addition, a sedentary lifestyle negates these benefits of exercise. So, avoiding sitting and being active throughout the day is also key.
Learning a new skill
– Learning a brand new skill, especially a new language or dancing stimulate the growth of new brain cells. It also prevents nerve death and improve neuroplasticity (your nerve’s ability to adapt). Brain-teasers and puzzles engage your cognitive skills. However, they are not enough to stimulate nerval growth. So learning a brand new, uncomfortable new skill that requires repeated practice and concentration makes the biggest difference in brain health.
Keeping in touch with others
– Loneliness and isolation increase the risk of many factors that increase inflammation. These include high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and heart disease, which inhibit neural growth. Having contact with other people, improves memory formation, recall and is protective against neurodegenerative diseases. Even small interactions such as passing interactions with shopkeepers, neighbours and other people in society are beneficial.
Watching what you eat
– A great rule of thumb is the greater variety of foods that you eat, the more chances you will have the needed range of nutrients. However, in regards to brain function, a healthy ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids is needed for good brain function. Omega-6 competes with Omega-3 in your body’s Eicosanoids system. This is part of your body’s immune system. A higher ratio of Omega-6 increases blood clotting factors and encourages inflammation. Omega-3 does the opposite. The ideal ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 is 1:1. However, most western diets are 20:1, due to our use of vegetable oils. You can get the ratio to 4:1 by eating more oily fish, flax seed oil and having more plant based food in your diet.
Respecting your circadian rhythm
– Getting enough sleep (at least 7 hours a night) is crucial for brain health. Lack of sleep has direct adverse effects on learning, memory, attention, decision making and mood. It is also a risk factor for dementia and cognitive decline. A regular and healthy sleeping routine is important. Having a regular bedtime, avoiding caffeine late at night, not exercising or working late and sleeping in a dark/quiet room are all good practices for good sleep hygiene.
Having a purpose in life
– Doing the things you enjoy and having a purpose in life contributes to mental well-being. More specifically, it reduces inflammation and the biological markers of stress. This improves cognitive function. The Global council on Brain Health recommend developing both personal and work-related goals to cultivate a sense of purpose in life.
A regular sex life
– Both in human and animal studies, regular sexual encounters, stimulate neurogenesis in the hippocampus. This is the brain’s centre for learning and memory. In addition, a regular sex life with a an emotionally close partner benefits higher-level thinking skills. These include memory, mathematical performance, spatial awareness and language fluency.
Goodwin, J (2021) How to keep your brain blooming New Scientist, 17th April 2021, No. 3330. P38-42
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