I'm sure you've heard it before: the brain is like a muscle. So the more you use it the stronger it gets. If your brain cells (neurons) are not used they will wither and die. However you can build up a good reserve and develop new pathways. What follows are things you can do in your life that will give your brain a good workout, keep it nourished and in some instances actually change your brain. These habits will do you good now and hopefully pay off in the future, as they may help prevent dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
1 Practice positive thinking
When bad things happen in your life, tell yourself that you will get through them. Know that you have the strength and support to do so and they will not last forever. In contrast, relish when good things come your way. As you go through your day try and see the good in the world and other people. By thinking this way, new pathways are formed in the brain. Yes the brain really can change and it is known as neuroplasticity. By developing a positive mindset your brain has traditionally built brand new, positive pathways. How good is that? Furthermore, New York University research found that when people engaged in optimistic thinking it activated the rostral anterior cingulate and the amygdala. These parts of the brain are both involved in emotional responses and are also affected by depression. So by getting into the optimistic habit, your emotional responses will be better and you will reduce your risk of suffering from depression.
A final reason to convince you to be optimistic is it is believed that positive thoughts can release serotonin, a brain chemical that makes you feel great. So you end up feeling even better, thanks to those original happy thoughts you had.
2 Engage in regular exercise
Exercise has so many benefits to both your mental and physical health and research continues to find more and more reasons for working out. The benefits to your brain are remarkable and I have included some of the highlights below.
Recent theories in evolution recommends we are smarter because of physical activity. Early ancientors would jog after their prey (endurance running) and anthropologists suggest this led to brain development in humans. There is research that shows improved memory performance after participants had been running. Also, a 2007 Columbia University study found working out four times a week lead to increased neuron production in the dentate gyrus, an area important to memory.
John Ratey has researched intensively the advantages exercising offering the brain and notes that in the short term you will see a sharpening in your attention for a few hours after exercise. Maybe if you struggle to focus at work, a good time to exercise would be in the morning. In the long term, it may prevent Alzheimer's disease.
Exercise has been shown to reduce hypertension. If you have hypertension you have an increased risk of suffering a brain haemorrhage, which may result in long term brain damage.
When you exercise, a number of neurotransmitters are released in the brain including endorphins, serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. These are naturally-occurring mood boosters which reduce your risk of depression.
Research by Weuve et al (2004) at the Harvard School of Public Health found exercise reduced cognitive decline in older women. The benefits were shown for women in their 70s and 80s who walked just 90 minutes a week. However, the more active the person was, the greater the benefits. Exercise is thought to increase neural fibers, synapses and capillaries. Another study by Duff et al (2008) found that older people who walked slower did not perform as well in cognitive tests as did people who walked faster. An indication of a slow walk is someone who took more than 17 seconds to walk 50 feet. So keep up walking time now for later benefits.
It is obvious there are both short term and long term gains for your brain health when you exercise. Remember to enjoy what you're doing and mix things up a bit to keep your brain alert.
3 Go dancing
When you dance there is a lot to think about. Quick decisions must be made, you must pay attention, you must remember the moves, be aware of your partner, keep track of your body in space and be in touch with the rhythm of the music. It is not surprising to learn then that dance activates many different parts of the brain – giving both your brain and body an effective workout. Your cerebral cortex and hippocampus are used when you are dancing and dancing requires complex neural pathways. Through the formation of these new pathways, your brain is getting bigger and stronger and more resistant to cognitive problems in later life.
A New England Journal of Medicine report compared a variety of recreational activities to see which ones helped reduce the risk of dementia. People who danced on a regular basis had a 76% reduced risk of dementia. This reduced risk was greater than reading or doing crossword puzzles, both beneficial activities.
4 Eat healthily and not too much
For good physical and mental health keep a balanced diet high in wholefoods, fruit and vegetables. However there are certain goods that are good for the brain. These include: fruit, vegetables, and proteins such as eggs, soy, beans, nuts and seeds. Cinnamon, rosemary, turmeric, basil are all thought to help protect against Alzheimer's disease. Drinking fruit or vegetable juice may help protect damage to brain cells as they contain high levels of polyphenols, which are antioxidants. A 2006 University of South Florida study found people who drank such juices were less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease. Of course, an overall healthy lifestyle may have been important to such people, so it's not just about the juice.
It also seems that eating too much can lead to changes in the brain. Eating too many high-calorie foods (those with lots of fat and sugar) can cause the brain to change so that it makes it more likely a person will overeat. The changes are similar to what happens when a person becomes addicted to drugs. Another study showed that overeating can increase a person's risk of memory loss. People over 70 who ate between 2143 and 6000 calories a day were twice as likely to be diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment compared to those who ate between 600 and 1525 calories a day. The risk was not apparent for those who ate less than 2143 calories a day. It is theorized that overeating causes brain changes that triggered in memory problems.
5 Switch off the television
Watching too much television can increase your risk of developing Alzheimer's according to a 2005 study published in Brain and Cognition. The risk rose by 1.3% for each additional hour a day spent watching television. Not only is television watching a passive activity, but also the more hours spent in front of the box means less time available for other activities that will give your brain a good workout.
6 Play video games
If you must sit in front of the television you may as well be active while you are there. The answer, believe it or not is video games. In moderation of course. Researchers are finding that playing video games is doing the brain good. Bavelier's research has shown gamers are more focused than non-gamers and are proficient at tracking information. Brain scans showed gamers' brains were more efficient and quicker when it came to paying attention (they are able to track 6 things at once. The norm is 4). Other research has shown gamers to be more creative, better decision makers, have superior perceptual skills and improved hand-eye coordination. Now as a COD widow, do I tell my husband this?
7 Puzzles and games
Puzzles and games activate different parts of the brain depending on the type. Engage in anything that gets you thinking. Play chess, logic puzzles, anagrams, strategy games, crosswords, Sudoku, Mahjong, jigsaws, card games, scrabble. Try to do a variety to exercise different areas of your brain and increase the complexity once they get too easy.
Bunge and Mackey had students play board, card and video games that challenged either their processing speed or reasoning ability. After 8 weeks the reasoning ability trained students saw a 32% increase in their non-verbal intelligence scores. The processing speed trained students saw their speed scores increase by 27%.
8 Learn new things
When you learn something new, you create new connections between neurons and existing ones get stronger. Learning new things is not just about taking courses or expanding your knowledge in new areas. It's about adapting to changes that occur every day. For instance, whenever your favorite software or social media app gets an upgrade you may complain about the change. However, think about your brain for a moment. It's used to the old way of working and does not have to work very hard to operate the software. The change means you are having to actively think again, which leads to the creation of new pathways. You've given your brain a workout. So, the next time you encounter a challenge, rather than give up, resolve to master it. Not only will you feel a sense of achievement, but your brain will be bigger too!
9 Do not see intelligence as a fixed thing
Research by Dweck and collections showed that when students were taught to recognize that the brain forms new connections and essentially grows through learning, the group saw an increase in their maths grades. As adults it's easy to assume that we all our learning and development is complete. By now you are either good at something or you are not. I hope this article has shown that your brain can continue to grow and that the more pathways you have the better. Shake off any labels given to you as a child. Give things a go, resolve to learn a new skill or face your Achilles heel. If you've decided to work on your Achilles heel, keep in mind that if you are struggling, there is more than one way to learn something. Give yourself a new pathway to follow.
10 Read a book
There's a lot involved when you settle down to the seemingly relaxing activity of reading. Your brain is kept busy as you need to store information about what you have read and be able to retrieve it as you progress through the book. Who was that character mentioned 100 pages ago? You also activate your creativity and imagination as you bring the characters described in words to life in your mind. This is just fiction. There's also the possibility of learning about new areas that you know nothing about by browsing the non-fiction section. If you are a collector of free kindle books, make sure you set out time to actually read them.
The French National Institute of Medical Research demonstrated that people who did not read were 18% more likely to develop dementia and the symptoms would be more severe. Reading can also push back the sunset of Alzheimer's for those genetically predisposed to the condition.