As if you needed another reason to hit the gym and eat some kale. Here’s one more: boosting your brain health.
Maintaining good physical health and nutrition are just two ways to enhance cognitive health. Two more include regular cognitive activity and social engagement.
“There's a lot of research that shows there's a strong link between being healthy in these aspects and being healthy cognitively, which is really exciting,” said Annabelle Wransky, dementia coalition specialist for the Alzheimer’s Association.
Wransky reviewed these strategies as part of a dementia education program series. Held monthly, this series aims to build awareness on the fourth leading cause of death in Richland County by covering dementia topics, communication strategies and how to assist in dementia-related situations. The program is free and open to the public.
As the control center of the body, the brain has about 100 billion neurons (nerve cells), creating a branching network. Think of it as a complex highway system, Wransky said. Like cars, neurons are traveling this way and that, trying to get messages from one part of the body to another.
With Alzheimer’s disease (the most common form of dementia), it creates roadblocks in this highway system, and then little by little, these networks die off, Wransky said.
“It’s important to note Alzheimer’s is not typical aging and that it is a disease,” Wransky said.
Known risks for Alzheimer’s include age, genetics, head injuries, cardiovascular factors and fewer years of formal education.
“Therapies for Alzheimer’s can treat symptoms, but it can’t cure, it can't prevent and it can’t even slow the disease progression,” Wransky said.
“Hopefully that changes — I would love to be able to say in a year or two that's wrong — but we do know that when you have increased brain health there is going to be a lower risk.”
Here’s how to go about boosting your brain health:
1. Physical health and exercise
“Researchers have said if you could do one thing, focus on exercise to increase your cognition,” Wransky said. “There are a couple speculations on why, but it does increase that blood flow, and if you think about how important the blood is to the brain, it makes sense.”
The brain depends on oxygen and adequate blood flow to work well. Twenty-five percent of blood from every heartbeat goes to the brain. Because the brain and heart are interrelated, what you do to protect your heart can also help your brain continue to operate at its best.
Cardiovascular activity may reduce the risk of cognitive decline. Read more on cardio exercise here.
Other steps you can take to promote healthy cognition include:
- Stop smoking
- Avoid excess alcohol
- Get adequate sleep
- Avoid head injuries
- Manage stress
- Treat depression
- Monitor your blood pressure, blood sugar, weight and cholesterol
- Visit your doctor regularly
2. Diet and nutrition
“Remember, nutritious food is fuel for the brain,” Wransky said. “I don't know about you, but when I eat poorly, I actually feel like I have a foggy brain. I can't really remember things as clearly.”
Following certain dietary guidelines can reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, stroke and diabetes.
Related reading: How to stop the mindless noshing
Choose green, leafy vegetables like kale, spinach and broccoli, which are are rich in brain-boosting nutrients like vitamin K, lutein, folate and beta carotene. Other items to add to your plate include fruits (especially berries), nuts, beans, whole grains, lean meats, fish and poultry.
Try to avoid saturated/trans fats, processed foods, deep-fried foods and unhealthy fast foods.
Consult with your doctor about dietary supplements and vitamins.
3. Cognitive activity
Keeping your mind active forms new connections among brain cells, and cognitive activity encourages blood flow to the brain.
“Every time you learn something new or you're approaching a problem in a different kind of way, your brain is developing new networks,” Wransky said.
Mentally stimulating exercises may help maintain or even improve your cognition.
“We exercise the body, so why not exercise the brain?” Wransky said.
Simple things you can do:
- Read articles and books that challenge and inspire you
- Complete puzzles and play games that are challenging for you
- Learn new skills or hobbies
- Engage in ongoing learning
4. Social engagement
Social engagement is associated with living longer with fewer disabilities. Staying engaged in the community offers opportunities to maintain skills. Plus, remaining both socially and mentally active may support brain health and possibly delay the onset of dementia.
What you can do:
- Visit with friends and family
- Engage with others
- Stay involved in the community
- Volunteer outside the home
- Join a group or club