The largest and most complex organ in the body is the brain. It is encased in the skull for protection and is comprised of millions of nerves that communicate along trillions of connections called synapses. The brain has an incredible ability to reorganize itself by forming new connections between neurons (brain cells) and repair damaged ones. It is in a constant state of flux, changing all the time, especially as you mature and age. This is known as brain plasticity (or neuroplasticity).
Genetic factors, the environment around you and your actions play a large role in neuroplasticity. The brain is perpetually changing, especially:
- In the beginning of your life where by age 5 it is 90% of an adult size and reaches its maturity by the mid 20’s
- When a brain injury occurs and the brain has to compensate for lost function, and
- Throughout adulthood when something new is learned or memorized.
The brain is the main receiver, organizer and distributor of information throughout the body and is constantly working, learning and developing during the course of our lives. It is therefore vital that we nurture our bodies and maintain a healthy mind to help ensure an active and fulfilling old age. It is common to occasionally forget an appointment or lose your keys, but when this occurs regularly, it could be a sign of a more serious problem such as the onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease.
There are a number of risk factors that are considered potential indicators in the onset of Alzheimer’s. If any of these risks can be eliminated early in life, it would help reduce the chances of developing the disease. They are as follow:
- Family members with Alzheimer’s, dementia or a history of Downs Syndrome
- Head injuries with/ without loss of consciousness
- Alcohol or drug dependence
- Treated or untreated depression diagnosed by a physician
- Heart disease or heart attack
- High cholesterol
- History of cancer or cancer treatment
- Seizures in the past or at present
- Less than twice weekly exercise
- Less than a high school education or working at jobs that do not require learning new information
- Smoking cigarettes for ten years or longer
- Have one or more than one APOE e4 gene
A two-year clinical trial of adults at risk of cognitive deterioration showed that by adopting healthy lifestyle habits, including excellent nutrition, physical exercise, social interaction and mental and heart health management, slowed down mental deterioration and is very important as we get older to help ensure we stay energetic and independent.
Engaging in an exercise routine that stimulates an increased heart rate, causes more blood to flow to the brain and other parts of the body, thereby boosting nourishment and decreasing risk factors including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes which are associated with developing cognitive illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. Exercising also helps improve your strength and balance. This is important to reduce the risk of falls which sometimes can lead to head injuries and concussions. It is important to always wear a seatbelt and use a helmet when doing active sports such as skating and cycling. Elderly people should make sure objects are put away or covered to prevent falling, such as electrical cords and shoes.
Eating a heart-healthy diet has shown to improve your cognitive function. The diet most recommended is the MIND diet, which is a combination of two diets that are specifically geared to a healthy mind, namely the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and Mediterranean diets.
The MIND diet is quite flexible and doesn’t count calories. Rather it focuses on the intake of brain-healthy foods and cutting back on those foods that sap the brain, which makes this diet more of a lifestyle and less of a strict regiment. There are 15 dietary components to the MIND diet – 10 of which are good for you and 5 which should be avoided. They are as follows:
- Eat at least three servings of whole grains, green leafy vegetables (for example a salad), as well as a side of vegetables, and a glass of wine, daily.
- Eat nuts as a snack during the day.
- Eat at least half a cup of berries at least twice a week.
- Eat beans every other day.
- Eat fish once a week.
- Eat poultry at least twice a week.
- Use olive oil as the oil of choice.
Avoid the following 5 foods:
- Red Meat should be reduced to less than 4 servings a week
- Sweets and Pastries should be reduced and even avoided if possible
- Butter and Cheese should be reduced to about a serving a week
- Fried and Fast Foods should be eliminated.
Other nutritional tips include:
- Drink plenty of water – 80% of the brain consists of water. It is crucial to stay hydrated to ensure good brain function. Reduce the intake of caffeine and alcohol where possible and avoid drinking sugary sodas and drinks that contain empty calories.
- Vary your Protein Intake – Proteins help balance your sugar and provide necessary building blocks for brain health. Make sure you eat a variety of high quality lean proteins in your diet including fish, poultry, limited red meat, legumes and nuts.
- Eat Omega 3 Fatty Oils – The brain needs essential fatty acids to function which includes foods that are high in omega 3, such as avocados, fish oil, nuts and green leafy vegetables. Limit trans fat intake and processed foods such as cakes, cookies and potato chips.
- Choose foods with a variety of colors – Brightly colored fruits and vegetables are usually high in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. “Superfoods” such as blueberries, beets, cranberries, pomegranates, spinach, peppers and broccoli, to name a few, have been shown to reduce the risk of developing cognitive impairment.
- Choose Low-glycemic foods – White flour, sugar, pasta and breads lead to sugar spikes. Choose whole grain breads, pastas and brown rice instead.
- There a number of spices that have shown to have a positive effect on brain health, including:
- Turmeric which contains a chemical that has been shown to decrease the plaque build-up in the brain thought to be responsible for Alzheimer’s disease.
- Cinnamon has been shown to help increase your attention span and to decrease sugar cravings.
- Basil improves blood flow to the heart and brain.
- Oregano has immense brain-healing anti-oxidant power.
- Garlic promotes better blood flow to the brain.
Staying socially active amongst friends is an important part of brain health. It can help ward off depression and keep you younger and active. There are a number of ways to stay social in your community including joining clubs such as walking and book clubs, going to informative or religious lectures, volunteering for community work or simply engaging in social interactions with friends and family on a regular basis.
Just as physical exercises are good for your overall health, mental exercises are excellent for your brain. As we get older, our actions and our thoughts tend to slow down. Keeping your mind active and stimulated is one way to slow down the aging process and make you feel young and independent. It is important not to sit in front of the television all day and become a couch potato; rather find meaning in your life.
- Read our latest book by Dr Barry Dinner on Adding Life To Your Years. It gives informative ideas on how to feel and stay younger in your older years.
- Make yourself useful in the community. Use your knowledge and experience to volunteer to help with different community projects, work in the local library or in a hospital visiting the sick.
- Change direction in life and consider a new career by going back to college or studying a new course on-line.
Below are additional number ideas on how to keep your mind stimulated and alert:
- Learn a new language – Auditory processing and memory improves when you learn a new language, as it requires analyzing and learning new sounds.
- Play games – Different games have different effects on the brain. Puzzles improve visual and special skills; chess and Scrabble can boost memory function and crossword puzzles and Sudoku can help increase logic and reasoning skills.
- Become a Student – Stay curious about life. Read books that are stimulating or engage in a formal education by taking courses that interest you. This will help keep your mind active.
- Memorize lists – Use mnemonics to remember a short shopping list. Memorizing things helps maintain your memory. Teaching new things that you have learned to someone else also helps improve memory function.
- Take on a new hobby – Learn how to play a musical instrument or take on a new hobby.
Maintaining a healthy heart can help maintain a healthy mind. Ongoing research has shown that factors that affect heart health can increase the risk of developing dementia as well, including smoking, high cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.
It is important to visit your doctor for regular check-ups and if you suffer from anxiety or depression, seek professional help. Stop smoking in order to help reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and make sure you get enough sleep each night.
Ensure that you manage your health carefully in order to stay young and fit as you age. For more information on brain health, contact our clinic.