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7 Brain-Healthy Habits

This article is based on Alice Walton's post on Forbes: 7 Habits That May Actually Change The Brain, According To Science

1. Exercise

Exercise has been linked to greater brain volume, better thinking and memory skills, and even reduced risk of dementia. A recent study in the journal Neurology found that older people who vigorously exercise have cognitive test scores that place them at the equivalent of 10 years younger. It’s not totally clear why this is, but it’s likely due to the increased blood flow to the brain that comes from physical activity. Exercise is also thought to help generate new neurons in the hippocampus, the brain area where learning and memory “live,” and which is known to lose volume with age, depression and Alzheimer’s disease. 

2. Vitamins and Minerals

Vitamin B12 is critical for the function of the central nervous system, and deficiency can lead to cognitive symptoms like memory loss. Vitamin D is also critical for brain health–and while there’s no causal link, low levels have been linked to cognitive decline. Iron is another that the brain needs to function well (especially for women who are menstruating) since it carries oxygen. But although supplements are necessary for certain people, getting your nutrients from food appears to be the most efficient way to take them in and absorb them.

3. Coffee

Not only does it keeps us alert, by blocking adenosine receptors, but coffee consumption has also been linked to reduced risk of depression, and even of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. This is partly because, like cocoa, compounds in coffee improve vascular health, and may also help repair cellular damage by acting as antioxidants.

4. Meditation

Meditation has been linked to increased brain volume in certain areas of the cerebral cortex, along with less volume in the brain’s amygdala, which controls fear and anxiety. It’s also been linked to reduced activity in the brain’s default mode network (DMN), which is active when our minds are wandering about from thought to thought, which are typically negative and distressing. Meditation also seems to lead to changes to the white matter tracks connecting different regions of the brain, and to improved attention and concentration.

5. Education/Mental Activity

Staying mentally active over the course of a lifetime, starting with education, is tied to cognitive health–which explains why crosswords and Sudoku are thought to help cognition. Mental activity may or may not keep a brain from developing disease (like Alzheimer’s), but it certainly seems to be linked to fewer symptoms, since it fortifies us with what’s known as cognitive reserves. “It is not that the cognitive activity stops amyloid beta production or neurofibrillary tangle development or spread,” David Knopman of the Mayo Clinic told me recently, “but rather that higher cognitive activity endows the brain with a greater ability to endure the effects of brain pathologies compared to a person with lower cognitive engagement throughout life.”

6. Sleep

The brain does an awful lot of work while we’re sleeping–in fact, it really never sleeps. It’s always consolidating memories and pruning unnecessary connections. Sleep deprivation, and just a little of it, takes a toll on our cognitive health. It’s linked to worse cognitive function, and poorer attention, learning and creative thinking. The more sleep debt you accrue, the longer it takes to undo it. Sleeping for about seven hours per night seems to be a good target to aim for.

7. Foods and Spices

A diet low in sugar and high in whole foods, healthy fats and as many colorful fruits and veggies as you can take in is cumulatively one of the best things you can do for your brain. 

  • Whole, unprocessed foods: The brain requires about 20% of the body’s energy resources to control your thinking, learning, remembering, and more. One way to literally feed your brain is to eat whole, unprocessed foods, which lend a constant source of energy. 
  • Fructose: It has been said that fructose disrupts plasticity—the creation of fresh pathways between brain cells that occurs when we learn or experience something new— and also impairs cognitive function.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Fatty fish has been linked to cognition, presumably because the fats in it make the cells of the brain more permeable. 
  • Plant-derived antioxidants: There's mixed evidence that these can improve cognitive function, at least in isolation. While some studies haven’t found an effect, others have suggested that compounds in foods like cocoa and blueberries may do some good. Turmeric, a key component of curry, if used regularly, has been linked to reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s disease, presumably for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

[Image source: Brain Blogger]

Lindsey Kennedy