Simple Lifestyle Habits Help Strengthen and Maintain Your Brain

You can do so much to keep your brain fit

May 5, 2011 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

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Use it or lose it. How many times have we heard that? Now we're learning that exercising and nourishing the brain are essential for keeping your mind fit and flexible.

What's more, we now know that maintaining an agile mind doesn't have to be difficult or painful. In fact, it can be loads of fun.

Genetics and aging not entirely to blame

It used to be commonly believed that genes and the aging process determined the overall health of our brains, including the likelihood of developing Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia. While genetics do play a part, we're not powerless over our brain power as we grow older.

As with other areas of medicine, researchers are demonstrating that how we live, what we eat and how we think have a great deal to do with the health of our minds.

Simple ways to sharpen your mind

Keith L. Black, M.D., Chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and Director of the Maxine Dunitz Neurosurgical Institute, says Americans can do more to keep their minds sharp and brains healthy even as they age.

Dr. Black tells dailyRx, “Of all the things we can do to keep our minds healthy and active, the two most important are exercising and minimizing or managing stress," he explains. "New research in animals suggests that exercise actually promotes the growth of brain stem cells – cells that become mature, well-functioning brain cells."

He offers lifestyle tips for those seeking a sensible regimen to bolster brain fitness and protect it from injury. Dr. Black's suggestions are simple and doable:

  • Stretch your brain
  • Feed your brain
  • Rest your brain
  • Exercise the whole body
  • Protect your brain

New research suggests that maintaining an active social life is also important for brain health.

Stretch your brain

There's still some debate about whether or not games and puzzles help delay memory loss and the onset of dementia. But there is evidence that the brain responds to "exercise" - activities that challenge and help keep it nimble. Dr. Black encourages you to keep busy with activities that challenge and charge the brain cells.

Activities that are good for your brain include:

  • Solve puzzles - crossword puzzles; Sudoku; word finds; unscrambling words, etc.
  • Knit, crochet, embroider, do needlepoint, etc.
  • Learn and speak a new language
  • Take a class to learn more about what interests you
  • Read, read, read - anything and everything

People who regularly engage in brain stimulating activities seem to have less memory loss in later years. Dr. Black says that hard scientific evidence may yet come. Meanwhile keeping your mind active through “play” and activity certainly won’t hurt.

Feed your brain

More and more, researchers are learning that diet has an impact on overall health and that unhealthy eating can lead to or contribute to a number of diseases. The same holds true for brain health, according to Dr. Black.

No single miracle food will prevent or reverse brain disorders. However, extracts found in fruits and vegetables - especially berries - appear to have many health benefits. Research finds these nutrients seem to reduce age-related brain declines and improve the way cells communicate with each other.

Healthy brain food

The best long-term diet for a healthy brain (and body) includes a variety of whole foods. These are foods that have not been processed in any way and include:

  • Whole grains (oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa, couscous, etc.)
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables - all types and colors
  • Beans
  • Nuts, seeds
  • High-quality proteins
  • Foods containing omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fatty fish, including salmon, halibut, mackerel and sardines. Some plants and nut oils also contain omegas.

Certain vitamins are especially important for brain fitness. B vitamins appear to be important for concentration and memory.

Sugar not so sweet for your brain

Dr. Black also encourages us to avoid sugar spikes. He explains that while our brain cells need a steady supply of glucose (sugar) for fuel, the refined sugars in simple carbohydrates (pastries, refined breads, candies) aren't good. These sugars cause a spike and rapid decline in blood sugar levels. Dr. Black says as a result of this, energy and mental focus peak and drop fast.

So again, Dr. Black recommends that instead of fast foods and simple sugars, choose whole foods to keep brain cells evenly fueled for a greater time.

Drink in moderation and stop smoking

If you drink at all, go easy. Too much alcohol can shrink brain mass, reduce memory and decrease cognitive functions.

And in case you needed one more reason about why not to smoke, here it is. Some studies find a link between cigarette smoking and brain cell damage. Also, smoking is known to cause lung cancer and when that disease spreads, one of its favorite targets is the brain.

Smoking marijuana has been linked to cognitive impairment and memory problems. Whether or not these changes become permanent is a topic that's still being hotly debated.

Rest and relax your brain

Do as Einstein did. If you're tired during the day, take a quick nap.

And try to get 6-8 hours of sleep on most days. New research suggests that getting not less more and not less than 6-8 hours is best for men and women in their middle years. Variations over a long period of time have been shown to speed mental decline and the aging process.

In the short-term, not getting enough sleep affects the brain’s ability to store and recall memories.

Likewise, if you're stressed, take a break. De-stressing activities include meditation, simple relaxation techniques and exercise.

Exercise the body for a fit brain

Physical activity can help unclog and clear the mind. It also improves memory by boosting brain chemicals that encourage nerve cell growth.

"Animals that exercise have a higher learning ability and more brain stem cell release in the brain, and we think this could translate into humans, as well.” Dr. Black tells dailyRx.com.

Protect your brain

You always want to take care to protect your brain. Simple ways to do this include:

  • Wear a helmet when participating in sports, riding a bike or motorcycle.
  • Make sure your children always wear a helmet when riding a bike or playing contact sports.
  • Take seriously every bump to your head.
  • Learn the symptoms of a concussion and err on the side of caution.
  • Learn the symptoms of stroke, a brain attack that can occur at any age.

Be cautious with cell phones

Ongoing research is still trying to determine if cell phone radio frequency waves increase the risk of brain tumors. Early studies have been inconclusive, while others are flawed.

So Dr. Black encourages taking a cautious approach - talk with the speaker on and keep your cell phone away from your head. And while better than having the phone next to your head, a wireless headset does give off some radio frequency waves.

Have fun and socialize

Finally, take time to spend time with people. Have some fun doing anything you enjoy doing.

New research shows that interacting with others is really important for staying healthy and fit as we age.

"Social activity has long been recognized as an essential component of healthy aging, but now we have strong evidence that it is also related to better everyday functioning and less disability in old age,” said the study's lead researcher Bryan James, PhD, postdoctoral fellow in the epidemiology of aging and dementia in the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center. “The findings are exciting because social activity is potentially a risk factor that can be modified to help older adults avoid the burdens of disability.”

Healthy body, healthy brain

Taking care of the health of your brain is very similar to taking care of your overall health - stay active, mentally, physically and socially; eat nutritious whole foods; don't smoke and drink sensibly; protect your head from potential injuries and get plenty of good quality sleep.