Brain Health

How to Enhance and Preserve It

Brain health is essential to quality of life. Our brains are what make us the dominant species on earth. While computers have taken over an increasing number of tedious and calculation-intensive tasks, there are so many functions our brains can perform far better than computers, such as rapidly perceiving and acting upon visual and auditory information. Brain health and function are essential to interacting with other people and our environment. Effective brain function is key to learning new concepts, adapting to change, earning a living, and influencing others. Maintaining brain health in one’s later years is essential for preserving critical capabilities and living independently as a full member of society.

There are several means by which you can enhance and preserve your brain health and function. They include:

  • Exercise: There is considerable evidence that exercise can improve brain function:
    • Exercise increases blood flow to the brain which, in turn, increases the brain’s supply of oxygen and nutrients. Exercise also increases production of natural chemicals that enhance growth, communication and survival of brain cells.
    • Animal studies have shown that endurance exercise can increase the number of brain cells and improve learning and memory. And more strenuous aerobic exercise may be more effective than moderate aerobic exercise. Mice that ran at their own pace improved on a learning task and showed positive changes in a brain region. However, mice that were pushed on a treadmill to run even faster improved on an additional, more complicated task and showed positive changes in several brain regions.
    • Human studies have shown that exercise can improve organization, planning, and multitasking, and reduce the risk of getting dementia as one ages. A group of college students were faster and more accurate on a test of letter memorization and identification after they did 30 minutes of aerobic exercise than after they lifted weights or sat quietly.
    • Fortunately, it’s never too late to begin exercising to improve brain health and function, as seniors who were sedentary all their lives showed improvement in brain function when they started exercising. Even walking 20-30 minutes a day can have a significant impact. See our physical fitness program guidelines.

  • Diet: There are various dietary factors that can affect brain health and function. They include:
    • Limit saturated fat. Animal studies have shown that diets high in saturated fat negatively affect learning and memory. People who eat higher levels of saturated fats are at greater risk for dementia. To decrease your intake of saturated fat, limit such foods as fatty meats and full-fat dairy products. Even 2% milk and low-fat cheese are relatively high in saturated fats, so limit your cheese intake and use 1% or skim milk. Tropical oils such as palm and coconut oil are also high in saturated fats, so limit foods listing them as ingredients. But trans fats are even worse than saturated fats, so completely avoid any product listing partially hydrogenated oil, shortening, or margarine.

    • Eat more omega-3 fats: These fats, found primarily in fish, but also in nuts and seeds, are essential components of brain cell walls and the sheaths around nerve cells that speed communication. There is some indication that low levels of omega-3 fats increase the risk of brain-function disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease. In societies where omega-3 fats are plentiful in the diet, there are fewer occurrences of brain and spinal cord disorders.

    • Eat plenty of fruits and vegatables: Diets high in fruits and vegetables, which are plentiful in antioxidants, were shown to enhance brain health by preserving learning and memory function in aging rats, and limiting brain damage caused by strokes.

    • Don't overeat: Animals fed diets containing 25-50% fewer calories than they would normally eat have aged more slowly, lived longer, demonstrated better memory and coordination, and resisted the decline of function associated with various brain diseases. Studies are ongoing to determine if humans reap similar benefits from calorie-restricted diets. Even before the verdict is in on the effects of calorie-restriction in humans, it is still prudent to stay slim because of the many other associated health benefits.

    • Drink moderate amounts of coffee or tea: Caffeine increases alertness by activating the central nervous system. Studies have shown that the equivalent of 2 cups of coffee improved short-term memory, reaction time, and activity of the brain region involved in focusing attention. There is also some evidence that caffeine can slow the decline of memory associated with age. However, do not overdo caffeine intake. In excess, it can cause nervousness, restlessness, anxiety, irritability, irregular heartbeat, and inability to sleep. It is best to have your coffee or tea in the morning, and to avoid caffeine-containing beverages in the late afternoon and evening. Some people must avoid caffeine completely if it causes undesirable symptoms.

  • Playing non-violent but challenging video games: Studies have shown that playing video games can improve eye-hand coordination, pattern recognition, and depth perception. People who play such games regularly have relatively long attention spans and high information-processing skills. However, violent video games appear to desensitize young men to violence and produce brain waves characteristic of aggression. So unless you have to fuel your aggressiveness to prepare for battle, it seems best to stick to games that challenge your perception and reaction abilities, but do not depict excessive violence, especially of the antisocial kind. When playing video games, men show more activity in the part of the brain associated with reward than do women, suggesting that men have a greater response to the games at a very fundamental level. The downside is that more men feel they are addicted to video games.

  • Listening to music: Besides being entertaining, music stimulates the brain‘s reward centers and suppresses a part of the brain associated with fear and other negative emotions. Music has also been found to lower blood pressure and reduce the occurrence of anxiety and insomnia. Studying an instrument may train the brain; the parts of the brain responsible for coordinated body movements are larger in musicians than in other people. Musical training has also been shown to improve the spatial ability of children.

  • Meditating: Meditation can improve focus, attention, and performance on cognitive tasks. It promotes feelings of relaxation and creativity, and stimulates the part of the brain responsible for positive feelings. Meditation stimulates growth of the cerebral cortex, especially the parts associated with attention and sensation. In addition, meditation has shown some effectiveness in treating anxiety, depression, insomnia, pain, high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, and some skin conditions. Meditation needn't be religious or mystical. Dr. Herbert Benson took key elements of various forms of meditation and distilled them into a method called "The Relaxation Response."

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