When the word "health" is mentioned, what comes to mind? Perhaps cardiovascular health, like exercise or eating a low-sodium diet? Or physical health, like eating a balanced diet and maintaining a stable weight. Maybe mental health, like meditation or counseling services?
Our overall health is so tightly intertwined with all these branches, but what is at the root of it all? The brain. A healthy brain is the key to lowering your risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's Dementia, and can help prevent or delay the progression of neuro-cognitive disease processes. Building up your brain health enhances your ability to focus and stay sharp. At the start of this new year, what better resolution to make than to improve the care of your brain? It is the "computer" of your life after all. So how?
Dr. James Goodwin, the Director of Science and Research Impact of the Brain Health Network has studied and explored this exact concept and has identified 6 pillars of brain health. These are simple guidelines for ways to enhance your overall mental and cognitive wellbeing, thus enhancing your overall physical health to keep dementias and other illnesses at bay. His research highlights that "even small changes could make a big difference."
The 6 Pillars
Healthy Habits: None of these should be surprising to anyone. Regular exercise (which is about 1.5 to 2.5 hours of an elevated heart rate each week), not smoking, not drinking excessive alcohol (no more than 1 drink a day for women, and 2 for men), and eating healthier (see Nutrition pillar) all enhance brain health.
Gut Health: The scientific discovery between "gut health" and "brain health" has been crucial in understanding the link between our food and our bodies. Eating foods that enhance the growth of Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria (the 2 most beneficial bacteria for the gut, or probiotics) is a simple way to improve brain health. Foods that help the growth of these bacteria (or prebiotics) include bananas, beetroot, dark chocolate, broccoli, tomatoes, onions, leeks, and legumes. Related to gut health is oral health. Our mouths are a breeding ground for bacteria, good and bad, and recent research is suggesting that bacteria can migrate to the brain and cause inflammation and damage that leads to dementia.
Nutrition: You are what you eat, and nothing could be truer about your diet related to your brain health. Fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, seafood, and poultry, healthy nuts and fats, beans and legumes, and whole grains are staples for improving your brain health. Research has suggested that eating a healthy, balanced diet is crucial for both short-term benefits, such as staying alert or mentally sharp, and long-term benefits, such as preventing or delaying the onset of brain diseases and dementia.
Sleep: A good night's sleep is one of the best ways to enhance your brain health. In addition to helping you feel better after a hard day, regular sleep habits have been found to ward off serious medical conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, and dementia. "Brain fog" caused by a poor night's sleep makes it difficult to concentrate, to make decisions, and to retain and recall information. In 2016 the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) recommended "7 to 8 hours of sleep each night for better brain and physical health," keeping in mind that everyone is different, and some people will need less or more.
Exercise: When it comes to brain health, the rewards of exercise are profound. Research has shown that physical activity is strongly associated with a reduced risk of dementia later in life, and it is never too late to begin. Even a small amount of exercise has been shown to slow the decline in individuals who have a mild cognitive impairment (small but noticeable changes in memory and thinking that can progress into Alzheimer's). Exercise helps to reduce shrinking of the parts of the brain associated with memory (hippocampus) and learning (pre-frontal cortex), boosts blood flow and subsequent delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the brain and increases levels of a molecule (brain-derived neurotropic factor, or BDNF) that is associated with brain cell growth.
Active Mind: Probably the most asked question related to brain health is "What can I do to stimulate my brain?" We've heard that doing a crossword once a day or playing apps and games on our phone helps to ward off dementia - but does it? Learning something new, becoming more proficient, or experiencing novel activities all helps to enhance brain health. Mentally stimulating activities can be physical, such as dancing or knitting, intellectual, like playing chess, or social, like playing with grandchildren. Social engagement and contact have been found to play a significant role in warding off dementia. In this pandemic era, taking the time to chat with the neighbor, to say hello to someone at the store, or to take that phone(or zoom) can all lead to better brain health.
Improving brain health may be the single most important step to warding off dementia and neurodegenerative diseases, and the habits that enhance brain function also subsequently enhance physical and mental health. Even if you think you may be genetically predisposed, findings show that the handful of genes that trigger Alzheimer's disease only accounts for about 1% of cases, meaning that developing Alzheimer's isn't always inevitable and can be curbed. Making little changes over time can have a long-term impact on your brain and in the short term, make you feel better, more connected, and more engaged.
Resources and More Information:
Helping keep your brain healthy. Brain Health Network. (n.d.). Retrieved January 3, 2022, from https://brain.health/
Oral bacteria may be responsible for alzheimer's disease. Science in the News. (2019, February 6). Retrieved January 3, 2022, from https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2019/oral-bacteria-may-responsible-alzheimers-disease/
Sleep and brain health: A vital connection. AARP. (n.d.). Retrieved January 3, 2022, from https://www.aarp.org/health/brain-health/global-council-on-brain-health/sleep-and-brain-health/
Why you want to supercharge your brain. WWNO. (2022, January 3). Retrieved January 3, 2022, from https://www.wwno.org/2022-01-03/why-you-want-to-supercharge-your-brain