When it comes to keeping the mind intact as we age, there are 6 key areas that need to be addressed. Keep yourself on top of these 6 areas and you are well on your way to maintaining a sharp mind as you age:
- Social Interaction
- Intermittent Fasting
- Meditation (Stress Reduction)
Pillar #1: Exercise
Now all 6 pillars are brain health are interconnected, but the one that probably connects them all more than any other is exercise. When we experience stress or anxiety, our ability to retain information is diminished, partly as a survival mechanism. Often when we are stressed we have so much going on that actually only being able to process one thing at a time is quite helpful. You’re running in survival mode.
Exercise can actually counteract this, by boosting communication between cells. Partly because it increases oxygen to the brain. We have spoken previously about an area of the brain known as the hippocampus (Things you probably didn’t know about Alzheimer’s and exercise) this is where our memories are interpreted and coded. If the hippocampus didn’t encode our memories then we would end up like Dory from Finding Nemo!
Now Synapses, the electrical signals that send these messages can have either weak or strong signals. The strength of this signal determines how well our memory is encoded and interpreted.
To a large degree, our lifestyle habits can either strengthen or dampen this signal. BUT, lifestyle changes and the magical concept of PRACTICE strengthen these signals!
Exercise & Brain Training
Exercise also works closely with pillar #4 stimulation. Intense exercise has shown to increase the effectiveness of brain training activities. That means that if you combine stimulation for the brain with intense exercise, the capacity of your brain will be greatly increased. Combining the two together amplifies the results for both.
Not only does exercise result in stronger PHYSICAL fitness, it works for mental fitness too. The brain is like any other muscle, it needs to be worked and trained. If you only train it with crossword puzzles, you won’t get better at remembering where your wallet is!
Combining exercise with an activity that challenges coordination is also a great way to challenge your brain. Exercising both the body and mind provide the biggest boost to our memories.
Why exercise is the closest thing to a miracle drug!
- It’s a natural way to lift your mood, improve your memory, and protect your brain against an age-related cognitive decline
- Triggers the growth of new brain cells
- Helps treat depression
- Increases brain volume and protein levels in the cells
Pillar #2: Social Interaction
Now we have talked about the concept of neuroplasticity (go back and read How Does Exercise Reverse Ageing In The Brain if you haven’t already) and how it works to develop new brain cells, but the way in which new and old brain cells interact can change in response to a social environment.
Close relationships and large social networks have a beneficial impact on memory and cognitive function as we age. Creating large social networks also helps to engage the other pillars of health such as exercise and mental stimulation.
Playing tennis, taking an art class and meeting new people all create stimulation for the brain and help keep it healthy. Not only that, but strong social connection gives us emotional nourishment as well, something important for maintaining stable moods which also impacts on brain health.
Pillar #3: Sleep
Sleep is extremely important for brain health. Yes, I know you have heard it time and time again, but here’s why you are starving your brain if you don’t get enough sleep!
The neural activity we experience in our brain during the day produces toxins as a by-product. Sleep helps to clear these toxins. This process happens in both well rested and sleepless individuals, however, in people who do not get enough sleep, the brain goes into overdrive. Essentially it turns in on itself and starts to destroy or harm itself instead.
Now one sleepless night here or there is nothing to worry about, but chronic sleep deprivation is what leads to neurodegeneration and diseases like Alzheimer’s.
The statistics show that our increasingly sleep-deprived society is suffering. We now live in a 24/7 world with deadlines and no clock off time. Once upon a time society was structured around 8 hours work, 8 hours sleep, 8 hours play. With the decline of this model, it is no surprise that our health has suffered.
Since the year 1999, the rate of diseases like Alzheimer’s has increased by 50%! Coincidence?… i don’t think so. The questions remain how can we develop a way in which modern society can get the required amount of sleep?. Whilst technology has allowed us a great many improvements, it is also to some detriment.
Pillar #4: Stimulation
The key is choosing a variety of activities that stimulate the brain, challenge it, but also give you enjoyment. They key is to start with an activity that can begin at an easier level and allows for progression as new learning patterns are developed. This includes new learning and builds brain reserve. While working, formal education and running a family can keep your brain stimulated in many ways, it is particularly important for retirees to give the brain a regular workout.
This may include:
- A hobby such as painting, carpentry, metal work, sewing, craft or collecting
- A short course such as woodwork, gardening, computers, cooking, mechanics or yoga
- Reading different styles of books, newspapers or magazines
- Writing poetry, essays or keeping a diary
- Doing jigsaw, crossword, number or word puzzles
- Playing board games or cards
- Learning to dance, play an instrument or speak a new language
- Going to the theatre, movies, museum, gallery or a concert
- Cooking a new recipe or building a model
- Joining a club or community group or volunteering
- Researching something you’re interested in on the internet or at your local library
Keep challenging your brain on a daily basis and your mental acuity will increase dramatically.
Pillar #5: Intermittent Fasting
There is a not of research showing the benefits of intermittent fasting for brain health. The evidence shows that periods of intermittent fasting increase brain plasticity – the biological marker of learning and memory. It also leads to the growth of new neurons, reduces the risk of neurodegenerative diseases and improves the quality of life to people who already have these conditions.
So how does it work?
Well, intermittent fasting reduces oxidative stress (harmful toxins) in the brain. It helps to prolong the lifespan of the nervous system by interacting with metabolic and cellular processes that are directly involved in extending our lifespan.
So how can you do intermittent fasting?
- Severely restrict calories (think 400-500 total intake per day) two to three days a week.
- Confine your food intake to an 8-hour period every day only and fast for 16 hours
- Fast once a week for a 24 to 36 hour period
Keep in mind your daily routine when picking a fasting method. If you are someone who does intense exercise quite regularly, the option to confine your food intake to an 8-hour period would be more appropriate than restricting your calories to a 400-500 total intake.
Intermittent fasting is not for everyone and you should consult your doctor before trying any calorie restriction method. Be aware there are also some side effects of fasting such as dizziness, headaches and mood disturbances.
While this is one way to protect your brain, maintaining a healthy diet with adequate consumption of Omegas DHA and EPA, along with management of your hormones is also a great way to protect your brain against age-related declines.
Pillar #6: Meditation (Stress Reduction)
Meditation is a great way to give the brain a rest. It allows fewer resources to be required in the processing of certain tasks. It has also been shown to improve the density of grey matter in the brain which is essential for the CNS and cell health.
MRI studies have shown that practicing meditation allows the brain to process information faster, making learning new tasks easier and quicker. It also helps to synchronize brain wave patterns between the left and right sides of the brain. It also Increases dopamine and serotonin levels to increase mood and reduces stress by downregulating adrenaline and cortisol.
As you can see the process of mindfulness meditation has the ability to positively affect brain power from a number of angles:
- Brain Function
- Stress Reduction
- Gyrification (cortical folding)
It assists with slowing down the brain and in turn, slowing down the effects of aging.
So there you have it! The 6 pillars of brain health. Not all that complicated to follow, but crucially important for staying young as we age!
Challenge: See which area you can improve on and set yourself a weekly task. Attend a new activity/class, give meditation a go, place tennis with a friend, seek out a new activity to try with a friend, go to bed 1-hr earlier. Whatever it may be, just try. Even small improvements make a measurable difference!