I think we’re all reeling a bit from 2020 and grateful to turn the page on a new year. I’ve been thinking about New Year’s resolutions and know from experience that it’s one thing to intend to do something and quite another to actually commit to a specific action or outcome.
Take brain health for example. Through my work, I feel like I’m always expanding, often straining my brain. Yet I realized that although I’ve read extensively about brain health and ways to maximize cognitive function over a lifetime, I’ve not really committed to “exercising” the brain in ways that are proven to impact all aspects of brain health.
So, this year I’m making a commitment to activate what I know about brain health and decided to share some of the best research and practical strategies on this topic.
Just the Facts
Research shows that brain function may start deteriorating at least 20 years before symptoms of cognitive dysfunction appear, so by the time a diagnosis is made, it’s very difficult to impact the outcome. Prioritizing brain health long before you have any concerns offers your best chance for lifelong cognitive well-being.
Age, genetics, and family history are all risk factors for dementia. However, research shows that the following lifestyle habits work together to help prevent and mitigate cognitive challenges:
- regular exercise
- Mediterranean-style diet (fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, fish, and unsaturated fats)
- adequate sleep
- regular cognitive stimulation (especially exposing the brain to novel challenges),
- reduction of cardiovascular risk factors (what’s good for the heart is good for the brain)
- stress management strategies
- positive social connections and support
The brain continually remodels itself in response to your daily habits and experiences – either for the better or worse. Learn what puts you at greater risk and then commit to taking small actions daily to reduce those risks.
For example, the region of the brain essential for short-term memory (the hippocampus) shrinks in response to chronic stress and grows in response to meditation and exercise. A high level of chronic stress significantly increases the incidence of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.
After a year like 2020, stress reduction is no longer a “should do” but a “must do” to re-build and re-enforce our defenses against stress related changes in the brain!
Form habits in each of the identified areas that support – rather than diminish – the brain’s ability to adapt to new stimuli and form new nerve cells throughout your full lifespan.
The Practical Steps
Evaluation of Current Nutritional Habits
Evaluate your nutritional habits to see if they are perpetually supporting or diminishing your chances for cognitive health – then make a choice!
Start with small changes like replacing french fries with roasted vegetables most of the time. This isn’t about deprivation but gradually making sustainable changes you can live with day after day. Move from the mindset of “I should eat better” to “what am I willing to do to maintain brain health.”
Commitment to Physical Activity
Commit to increasing physical activity – especially aerobic activity that circulates blood to the body and brain. Much of the positive impact of exercise on the brain stems from bathing the brain in oxygenated blood! Think brisk walking, cycling, swimming, dancing, etc. that require continuous movement.
Multiply the positive impact by doing these activities with others. For example, social dancing demonstrates some of the best outcomes – likely because it fully integrates physical activity, novel movement that challenges the brain, and positive social interactions!
If you’re social distancing, put on your favorite music and dance like no-one’s watching, or have a ZOOM dance party with friends.
Creating Meditation Times
Designate specific times in your day for stress reduction activities. Sitting meditative practices for as little as 12 minutes a day have a significant impact on both brain and physical health.
In addition, moving meditation practices like yoga, tai chi, and qigong that combine movement, attention/focus, and slow/paced breathing improve both brain and physical health.
Engaging in Activities that Stimulate Neuroplasticity
Stimulate your brain with activities that induce neuroplasticity – meaning the brain has to be challenged enough to start building neurons and making new connections. Novelty is your brain’s friend! Even small things, like brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand, requires the brain to “re-program.”
Pick several routine activities and perform them with your non-dominant hand for at least 2 weeks. You’ll be surprised at how quickly your brain adapts to make the task progressively easier. Consider joining with friends for novel activities outside of your normal routine for even more positive impact.
Brain health doesn’t just exist in the intellectual domain. It’s directly connected to physical, social, and emotional well-being as well. Gratefully, the habits that support brain health also support overall well-being for lifelong independence and vitality.
Visit my site, Brilliant Aging, for free resources and downloadable tools to support overall well-being.
What do you consider the biggest barrier(s) to eating well? What activities do you currently do on a regular basis that support brain health? Is there one thing you could add to your lifestyle this year that supports brain health?