Cultivating a Healthy Brain at Any Age

keep sharp

As noted in a previous blog post, I’ve experienced being a caretaker for folks with cognitive impairment. My father suffered from geriatric dementia for several years prior to his death; my mother had full-blown Alzheimer’s disease. So, I took a keen interest in Sanjay Gupta’s latest book, Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age. As the title suggests, Dr. Gupta’s book carries a message of hope for those of us who fear loss of mental competency as we age. Here are a few encouraging facts based on the latest research:

From the day we’re born to the day we die, the brain shapes and reshapes its synaptic connections and neural networks in response to experiences, learning, and even injury. The more we learn and challenge ourselves, the more extensive (and agile) our neural networks. This phenomenon is referred to as neural plasticity.

The brain can also manufacture new brain cells throughout our lives – a process known as neurogenesis. Each of us maintains a reservoir of neural stem cells in our hippocampus. These cells can differentiate into the different types of brain cells that we need. And when the reservoir depletes, the brain can replenish its supply.

Much like a muscle, the brain needs stimulus and challenge to grow. It also needs regular work outs to maintain its existing “muscle mass.” For example, people with memory training and other specialized cognitive skills must continue exercising them to retain them. (The brain works on the use-it-or-lose-it plan.) However, we can’t simply work existing skills and expect growth in our neural networks. We need to acquire new skills and knowledge. You might say that the brain wants new places to go if it’s going to build new neural roads.

While some cognitive skills decline with age, we never lose our capacity to learn. Moreover, the elderly outpace their younger counterparts in vocabulary, character assessment, social communication, diplomacy, and emotional regulation.

Brain function can be impaired when refuse creates arterial blockage (plaque) or embeds twisted insoluble fibers within neural cells (tangles). While plaque and tangles can damage neural pathways, brains with extensive neural networks can re-route with no perceived loss of function. In particular, Dr. Gupta noted that autopsies of nonagenarians may reveal similar levels of plaque and tangles in the brain. Those with agile neural networks avoided cognitive impairment because their brains figured out how to route around the blockages.

So, what are the factors that contribute to a healthy brain?

EXERCISE is the single most important thing we can do for a healthy brain. Physical inactivity is a BIG risk factor cognitive decline. We need at least 150 minutes per week of aerobic exercise alongside strength training and stretching/balance work. Ideally, we should log 450 minutes of aerobic exercise – which can include brisk walking – and find ways to move in acts of daily living.

PURPOSE, LEARNING, and DISCOVERY provide stimulus for the brain that increase the density of neurons, synapses, and dendrites. Brain networks that operate with greater efficiency, complexity, and reserves are less susceptible to disruption or decline. A few ways to stimulate the brain outside of work include learning to speak a foreign language, learning to cook or paint, taking up a musical instrument, programming a computer, taking ballroom dancing, or writing a novel. Don’t worry about whether or not you are any good at the activity. Your brain loves a challenge!

SLEEP. The brain needs 7-8 hours of good quality sleep every night to regenerate, store memories appropriately, and clear out its refuse. Chronic sleep deprivation carries elevated risk for dementia, depression, mood disorders, high blood pressure, weight gain, and fall-related injuries. We also need to RELAX during our waking hours. Healthy practices include meditation, mindfulness, yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery.

EAT NUTRITIOUS FOOD. A heart healthy diet is a brain healthy diet. Here are the A-B-Cs of Dr. Sanjay’s diet:

A: Consume Regularly B: Include these foods C: Limit these foods:
Fresh vegetables, especially dark leafy greens
Whole berries
Fish and seafood
Healthy fats
Nuts and seeds
Beans and other legumes
Whole fruits
Low sugar, low-fat dairy
Whole grains
Fried food
Pastries, sugary foods
Processed foods
Red meat
Red-meat products
Whole-fat dairy

BUILD HIGH-QUALITY SOCIAL CONNECTIONS. Close ties with family and friends as well as participation in meaningful social activities keeps a mind sharp and memories strong. Social engagement proves most protective when centered around a challenging activity. Socially connected folks are healthier, happier, and live longer.