As this week (March 16th - 22nd) marks Brain Awareness Week, we share with you 5 top tips to keep your brain healthy, no matter your age.
1. Get physically active
Being physically active doesn’t mean you have to be a gym expert – activities that get your body moving like walking, running, gardening or housework all count when it comes to boosting your brain health. As long as it is aerobic exercise (meaning moderately exerting yourself e.g. swimming or walking) rather than sprinting or lifting weights (anaerobic exercise) your brain will reap the rewards.
When you exercise, blood rushes around your body, including your brain. Your brain takes advantage of this added oxygen and nutrients and refreshes itself, building new neurons and connections.
As well as benefitting your brain, staying active can help you remain independent as you age and can also improve your balance while brightening your mood and helping to stave off depression. It also gives you more energy to do the things you want to do and helps you to sleep better, and sleep is what your brain thrives on.
2. Stay socially engaged
We are a very social species, so interacting with people gives us great sustenance in terms of brain health. Join a book club, a community or volunteer group, a choir or sports team are all great ways to kick start your social interaction. Even having a regular coffee morning with a friend or group of friends does the trick.
Social interaction stimulates your brain cells to grow new connections and strengthens those already existing, while new cells also form in key memory areas of the brain. One study found that taking part in lots of different leisure activities was associated with a 38% lower risk of developing dementia in people aged over 65.
Another study in Sweden interviewed 1000 people with no known cognitive impairments about their social networks. Three years on, 176 of these people were diagnosed with dementia. It was found that those who lived alone, were single and reported little or no close social ties had a 60% increased risk of dementia compared to those who were married or living and interacting with someone.
3. Challenge your brain
Keeping your brain stimulated is key to staying young in mind. Challenge your brain by starting with an easy level of Sudoku or the crossword in the newspaper each week. Gradually move to harder Sudoku levels or crosswords – essentially exercising your brain and pushing it a little harder, the same way we do with our bodies.
Exercising and pushing your brain in this way improves mental sharpness and can help fight off some of the negative effects of aging on the brain. However, don’t push yourself too far to the point that you get stressed and it’s not enjoyable anymore, as this is not doing your brain any favours.
Why not change it up a bit if you get a little bored of doing the same brain exercises all the time? Try to pick up a new skill or hobby – learn a new language, develop some computer skills, start painting and drawing or join a class. Anything new that you learn helps to strengthen your brain connections and builds up valuable reserves in the brain.
4. Change your attitude
Managing stress and having a positive mental attitude is key for protecting your brain health as well as your physical health. Learning to control your stress levels benefits your brain’s fitness and overall memory performance.
A certain amount of stress is naturally a part of life and in small doses is not harmful, however it is important to learn how to cope with more extreme stress. Exercising is well known to release endorphins, the “feel good/happy” chemicals in the body, as well as releasing pent up energy from high levels of stress.
When we are experiencing high levels of stress, it can be difficult to focus on the task at hand without mentally jumping into the future and worrying about what may or may not happen. It is important to be mindful and focus on the present moment and what is happening in the here and now, which can help ease our stress and worry about the future. It may sound simple but it does take practice – being aware of your body, feeling the soles of your feet touch the ground while walking and noticing and focussing on your breaths going in and out can help to stop the mind from wandering.
Another important way to deal with any type of stress is to talk about how you are feeling with a friend or family member you feel comfortable with and get the support you need. There are also many helpful resources you can access such as ALONE for older people and Samaritans. Speaking about what is causing stress puts our feelings into perspective and can bring a huge sense of relief.
5. Adapt your lifestyle to protect your brain
Scientists have discovered that certain activities can leave our brain vulnerable to things like memory loss and general cognitive decline. These risk factors include; consuming too much alcohol, binge drinking, smoking and head trauma. However, it is not just about avoiding these risk factors, but also about taking steps to invigorate your brain, as we have mentioned already in this article.
Socialising, mentally challenging yourself, having new experiences and seeing new places, being more physically active and eating a healthy diet are all lifestyle adaptations we can make to protect and maintain our brain health.
Like the heart, our brains benefit from a healthy diet – low in saturated fats and high in colourful fruits and green vegetables. Adding more oily fish to your diet (which contains Omega-3) appears to help inflammation in the brain while boosting the birth of new brain cells. While your brain enjoys nothing more than a good oxygen boost as you exercise, to redeem all the benefits of that you need a good iron supply. Try boosting your intake of foods like green leafy vegetables, fortified cereal, dried fruit and pulses like baked beans.
Sleep is essential for our brain health. Without sufficient sleep, we respond more slowly to situations or find it difficult to pay proper attention, becoming absentminded and disoriented. Sleep can also boost our power of recall (memory) as when we sleep, the brain has a chance to process all the information it has taken in during our waking hours. Memories are sorted and solidified into our brain circuits. Check out our article on how to prepare for and get a good night’s sleep here.
Finally, growing evidence suggests that a lack of sleep not only affects our brain health but also increases our risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, stroke, depression, high blood pressure, obesity and infections.
Information from Hello Brain, linked with Brain Awareness Week campaign