How do you lead a brain healthy lifestyle, one that champions a proactive approach
to shaping the brain? The lifestyle is composed of five major components, or “slices of a brain health pie”: physical activity, mental stimulation, socialization, spirituality, and nutrition.
All of these five domains are considered integrated and are not meant to be approached or viewed as segregated or isolated from the other four. We should all review our own lifestyles and judge our strengths and weaknesses. Small changes to boost our weak domains help build a stronger integrated brain health pie.
Did you know that every time your heart beats, 25 percent of the blood goes directly to your brain Walking and aerobic exercise have been found to relate to reduced risk of dementia and even to higher test scores for students. (If physical activity promotes learning, we should seriously consider why our children remain seated for so long at school.) Running was found to be a strong factor contributing to neurogenesis in the rodent hippocampus, and the same brain region appears to be a positive target for the human brain with exercise. Humans should be encouraged to take daily walks, to engage in some form of aerobic exercise three times weekly — or at least on a regular basis — and to even increase time spent dancing.
Enriched environments relate to cortical growth, neurogenesis, and increased synaptic density in animal brains relative to animals raised in unenriched environments. Environments that are novel and complex stimulate the cortex, where brain health occurs through development of brain reserve. Novel and complex stimuli are objective, so each person should ask what is novel and complex for him or herself.
A proactive brain health lifestyle will involve pursuits and activities that reflect novelty and complexity. In contrast, behaviors that rely on the passive and rote do not need the cortex and tend to be much less brain healthy.
Research suggests that learning a new language, traveling, reading and writing, creativity, music, game-playing, computer-based mental fitness, gardening, and knitting relate to brain health promotion. Critical to developing novel and complex environments at home or work is to first recognize your own daily routines and try to make small changes to engage in doing new things or doing traditional things in a new way.
A brain that isolates and segregates will not build brain reserve. Similar to the robust relationship between physical activity and brain health, there is a consistent finding that remaining integrated and involved with others helps to reduce the risk of dementia.
People should remain involved, develop new friends and maintain happy and healthy family relations. There is also good reason to develop hobbies and to contribute to one’s community in ways that are most personally relevant, because finding one’s passion in life and then applying that passion to the benefit of others can be uplifting.
Socializing with others provides opportunities to learn, to share ideas, to communicate and to develop close ties for many years.
Retirement may not be the best thing for brain health, particularly for those who have not developed alternative avenues of self-expression and contribution outside of the job. Continual reflection and renewal of who you are and what you are called to do is critical.
For those who are prone to isolation, use the computer — it provides a virtual method to connect with others, including children and grandchildren.
Research indicates that when rodents are exposed to environments that are too stimulating, their brains stop developing. We also know from research that chronic stress can do structural and functional damage to the hippocampus of the animal and human brain. For this reason, patients with post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic anxiety often have memory problems. Recent research supports the importance of the brain having down time to process the multitude of important information that it is exposed to daily. For those interested in this slice of the brain health pie you may wish to search “neurotheology.”
Instead, provide your brain at least 30 minutes a day to be without a task to complete, turn
inward, and grow peaceful.