This article is from the Fall/Winter 2011 issue of The Wellness Advisor® magazine.
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We used to think that it was impossible to grow new brain cells. That’s something I was even taught in medical school. Now we’re learning about something called neuroplasticity, which is a fancy way of saying that the brain generates new cells to replace tired or injured ones. In fact, thousands of new brain cells are born daily. But you need to practice good “brain hygiene”—and exercise your brain—to keep those newborn cells alive.
Over Age 50? You Could Have Holes in Your Brain
Scientists who studied MRIs of healthy people in their 50s and 60s found many small damaged areas of the brain, called lacunar infarcts, which are caused by microstrokes. These microstrokes are so minor that we may not even know they are happening. Or, we may experience that foggy thinking and momentary loss of logic that some people call a “senior moment.”
The good news is that by keeping our brains properly exercised and nourished, and avoiding unhealthy behaviors, we can encourage its repair process, and perhaps even prevent damage in the first place.
How much of an impact can you expect this to have? Consider what researchers now know about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. We now understand that these brain diseases develop slowly over decades, and contributing lifestyle factors include blood pressure, obesity, cholesterol, educational level, nutrition and depression, as well as mental, physical and social activity.
Simple Healthy Brain Strategies
Feed your mind with DHA. Fish really is brain food, and it has shown the strongest connection between food and brain health. The polyunsaturated fats in fish may help to restore and maintain your brain cells’ functions, and may help to protect against inflammation and oxidative injury. If you start taking a fish oil supplement, be careful to choose one that has its heavy metal contaminants removed, as the high levels of mercury found in some fish oils may offset this nutrient’s benefits.
Fill your head. One study found that for each year of education, your risk of dementia falls 11 percent. Analysts also say that teenage dropouts have one of the highest risks of Alzheimer’s. Finished with school? Another way to stimulate your mind is to do crossword puzzles or sudoku. There is even evidence that performing online searches can stimulate your mind more than reading a book, and may activate key memory centers in your brain.
Limit alcohol consumption. While a little red wine may deliver beneficial antioxidants and may help keep your blood vessels in good condition, excessive alcohol consumption is associated with loss of cognitive ability. If you drink, limit it to one a day for women, and two a day for men.
Load up on these other antioxidants. Berries are delicious sources of brain-friendly vitamin C and other antioxidants. And if you love coffee, tea and chocolate, you are in luck: they all contain protective antioxidants as well.
Get your rest. Studies show that your brain needs adequate sleep to regenerate and be healthy. Avoid airborne toxins. Tobacco smoke isn’t the only kind of smoke that’s toxic. Any time you bring oxygen over a flame, it creates free radicals. When you inhale those free radicals, they get into your bloodstream and can damage your tissues—including your brain tissue. That’s why it’s also wise to avoid inhaling campfires, for example. In the kitchen, try not to heat any cooking oil to the point where it starts to smoke or it too will give off harmful free radicals.
Floss your teeth. Tooth and gum disease may be associated with lower memory and cognition. Some experts think this is because the inflammation in your mouth eventually finds its way to your brain.
Get your heart pumping. Daily aerobic exercise (about 30 minutes) helps to deliver nutrient-rich oxygen to your brain, and reduces stress that contributes to inflammation.
Protect your brain. Head injuries, even tiny blows, increase your risk for dementia years later. So wear protective helmets, buckle your seat belt, and do a safety check of your house to reduce your risk of falling or tripping.
Nurturing and protecting your brain should be a life-long habit. If you’re a parent of youngsters, teach them to take head injuries very seriously, to moderate intake of sugary drinks and high-fat foods and to stay in school.
A rich social life…a stimulating job…staying physically active…avoiding junk food and exposure to toxic substances…and engaging in mentally demanding leisure activities—will all combine to help you maintain a better memory and a healthier brain as you age.