We hear a lot about keeping our hearts healthy, through following a healthy lifestyle, good diet and getting plenty of exercise. But taking care of our brain is just important. It’s the most important organ in our body, so brain health is vital for our overall health, as our brain functions control all our body’s functions. What’s more, a heathy brain will help your mind to stay alert, active and clear and help to promote good mental health.
Brain health is about keeping your mind active, feeding it plenty of nutrients and oxygen, and reducing risk factors that can harm the brain.
Chronic conditions that affect our overall physical health – like diabetes, heart disease or high blood pressure, can affect our brain health.
All these conditions can increase our risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or certain forms of dementia, like vascular dementia.
Why lifestyle choices make a difference to our brain health
Medical research shows us that our brain health can be improved, and our risk of dementia and other age-related cognitive decline reduced by making improvements to our lifestyle.
Cutting out bad habits like smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, eating a healthy balanced diet and getting plenty of physical activity can all help to boost our brain health and potentially reduce our risk of dementia and other conditions in the long-term.
But there are other good reasons to take good care of your brain.
In a healthy brain, as in a healthy body, there is a process of renewal. As we get older that renewal slows and changes in the brain cells mean that the constant flow of new connections slows, resulting in a gradual decrease in cognitive function. That process is known as age-related cognitive decline, commonly recognisable as a tendency to become more forgetful. Although we can’t stop this ageing process, by keeping our brain healthy we can help ourselves to stay healthier for longer.
What are the common types of cognitive decline or impairment?
Cognitive decline or impairment can happen in several ways and for different reasons.
Dementia is the term used to describe a number of symptoms related to changes in how our brain works – and includes some specific conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. It is a progressive disease, meaning that it usually begins with very mild symptoms, which gradually get worse. These include memory loss, difficulties with problem-solving and problems communicating. It’s common in the over-65s, but there is evidence to show that early-onset dementia in the under-50s is on the rise. And researchers are discovering how much lifestyle can influence our chances of developing dementia in later life. That’s just one of the reasons to cut out those bad habits and embed healthier ones.
- Brain injury
Even a fairly minor head injury can lead to temporary impairment of the brain functions – typically the combination of headache and dizziness referred to as concussion. But did you know that symptoms ‘concussion’ can also include depression, irritability, fatigue and memory problems? Most people recover after a couple of weeks, but these after-effects can last months or years – even after a minor injury.
Although there’s no miracle cure for these after-effects, and you should always follow the advice of a health professional, there are ways that you can look after your brain.
My favourite ways to look after your brain
- Keeping fit
Keeping fit isn’t just good for our bodies, it also helps our brain. Regular exercise and being fit is good for our blood pressure, and also boosts blood flow and the development of blood vessels supplying oxygen to the brain. Keeping your weight down through exercise can also protect your brain by lowering your risk of diabetes.
- Brain fitness
Just as we get regular exercise to keep our bodies fit and healthy, we can also exercise our brain. Mental activities which challenge our thinking powers – like crosswords, other puzzles or learning a new skill – help to keep us alert. As do hobbies like crafts, listening to or making music or reading. Also, research shows that group activities like singing together also boosts your brain health (as well as your mood).
- Brain food
A diet rich in healthy fats is really good for the brain. Things like oily fish, rich in Omega-3 oils, and olive oil, broccoli, avocado, pumpkin seeds and even dark chocolate are great brain food. In general, though, the more natural your diet is, the better. Go for lean proteins rather than fatty cuts. If you’re a fan of the Mediterranean diet, it’s a great diet for brain health – and some studies have shown that it can be particularly beneficial if you’re recovering from brain injury
Try to cut down on sugar, processed foods and saturated fats. Although your brain depends on sugar (glucose) as its main fuel, too much of it is a bad thing. Studies have shown there is a link between excess blood sugar and memory and cognitive impairment. This is probably most severe in diabetes sufferers, where it has been shown that high blood sugar levels can lead to conditions which restrict the blood flow to the brain.
- Lifestyle change for your brain
Smoking is a really high brain health risk factor, potentially increasing your risk of dementia by 44%, as well as increasing the likelihood of heart disease and stroke. Need I say more?
Alcohol consumption at a low level may actually help to protect the brain, but as with most health aspects, the key is to keep it low to moderate. Excessive alcohol consumption can increase your risk of cognitive impairment and mental decline later in life
- Staying social
OK, so the current Covid-19 pandemic has restricted our social activities for the last couple of months, and will continue to do so for some time. But keeping in touch with your loved ones isn’t just good for your mental health, it’s actually good for your brain health, too. People with strong social networks tend to suffer less from high blood pressure, and have a longer life expectancy.
Isolation is bad for you in more ways than one. If you’re worried about this from your point of view, or have a friend or relative you’re concerned about, think about ways in which you can be more socially active, even with social distancing. With all the tech options available to us, it’s good to get online, chat, and even do a crossword puzzle or game together.
A quick word on technology, though. Whilst it’s a great way to stay in touch – and we’ve all relied heavily on it over the last couple of months – be careful about over-reliance on things like video games.
There is research that indicates that playing video games changes the structure of our brain, as well as how it performs.
On the one hand, studies show that gamers may have better attention spans, and there are also positive impacts on visual and motor skills.
On the other, video gaming can be so addictive it’s even got its own name; ‘internet gaming disorder’. Gaming addicts display functional and structural alterations in the way the brain works for feelings of pleasure, learning and motivation. It’s similar to other types of addiction.
Research is in early stages, and we don’t yet know what long-term effects might be.
What we do know, though, is the effect the ‘blue’ light from screens has. It’s well-documented that the particular light frequency from screens ‘wakes-up’ our brains, which can interfere with sleep patterns. So it’s a good idea to switch off screens a couple of hours before bedtime.
Which brings me on to…a good night’s sleep. One of the best things you can do to help your brain stay healthy and to help you feel alert during the day is to get a good night’s quality sleep. What that means for you is highly individual, but most adults need between seven and nine hours a night to be at their best.
I’d be really interested to know what you do to look after your brain. And if you’re struggling with ditching the bad habits and getting into some new ones, I’d be happy to talk.