By Dan Roe
You probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how your brain feels … well, except when you eat a popsicle too quickly.
But the truth is, your brain is a formidable organ that benefits from the same healthy habits that can make the rest of your body look and feel great. And while a “brain freeze” won’t give you dementia—heck, it doesn’t even affect your brain, but that’s a whole other story—there are many things you can do every day to improve brain fitness and stave off the cognitive decline that comes with age.
The brain truly is a mighty organ. It’s incredibly elastic, able to grow in size and strength into old age, and consumes a whopping 20 percent of the body’s energy every day. Not surprisingly, the brain works best when it’s being fed oxygen and nerve signals from a healthy body. And, in turn, an active and engaged brain can protect the body from the physical effects of mental disorders and decline.
So here are seven research-proven methods for improving your brain power today and for years to come. And don’t forget to talk to your Emcara nurse practitioner about brain health and other ways to improve your cognition.
New experiences and challenges keep our brains young by stimulating grey matter—cells on the parts of the brain that help with things like memory, decision-making, self-control, emotions, and other critical functions. For example, London taxi drivers who learned to navigate the city’s 25,000 streets without GPS had more grey matter than London bus drivers who drove the same few routes for years, according to a 2011 University College London study. The phenomenon is called neuroplasticity, which refers to how malleable our brains are. Just like a muscle, the more you challenge your brain, the stronger it gets.
Brain challenges can be as wide-ranging as solving a puzzle, trying a new recipe, or learning a new language—the options are endless. Whatever brain-boosting activity you choose, just remember that neuroplasticity is like exercise. You won’t feel physical discomfort, but you may get frustrated. And that’s how you know it’s working.
Physical activity is one of the most effective ways to improve and preserve cognitive performance at any age, according to decades of neuroscience research. Numerous studies point to physical activity’s ability to delay brain aging and diseases like Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, and diabetes, according to a 2019 review. Older adults who moved frequently also scored higher on memory and thinking tests in a recent study published in Neurology. For these reasons, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week for adults 65 and older, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise.
“Brain food” may be a term for third-grade teachers handing out apple slices, but recent research proves their advice may have lasting health benefits, too. A groundbreaking 2022 study found that diets that included 20 percent or more “ultraprocessed foods” were linked to a 28 percent faster rate of cognitive decline compared to people who minimized their intake of these foods. And ultraprocessed foods are all around us, accounting for 71 percent of all packaged foods.
Likewise, diets based around whole foods have been tied to cognitive improvement. Mediterranean diets of olive oil, nuts, fatty fish, lean meats, fruits and vegetables, legumes, and low-fat dairy products were associated with better cognition in middle-aged adults, according to University of San Antonio researchers.
For reasons that are still not fully understood, maintaining strong relationships and social bonds has consistently been shown to increase cognitive performance and delay the onset of dementia. The effects of social interaction on cognition can be immediate: One 2021 Pennsylvania State University study found that adults between ages 70 and 90 scored better on cognitive performance tests on days when they had more social interaction. Over a longer period of time, social interaction can grow grey matter. Social engagement was also linked to more grey brain matter and less cognitive decline in a 2021 Journal of Gerontology study.
High blood pressure is bad for your brain. Unfortunately, long-term studies compiled by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) found that people who had high blood pressure in their 40s, 50s, and 60s were more likely to have dementia in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. Remember, all of that energy the brain is using means that it’s tapping 20 percent of the body’s blood, so the narrowing of blood vessels associated with high blood pressure means less blood going to the brain, according to the NIA. The good news: It’s never too late to start reversing the trend. Harvard Health notes a number of studies that show that even people in their 70s and 80s are still able to slow cognitive decline by improving their blood pressure.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke recommends that adults get 7-9 hours of sleep each night to maintain healthy brain function. Getting too little impairs brain activity and inhibits communication between neurons, making it harder to learn, remember things, and concentrate. Too much sleep can leave you groggy and in a brain fog. Older people may need a little less sleep, the Institute says, adding that people who can’t get to sleep should try daily exercise, totally dark rooms, and doing something relaxing as opposed to lying in bed awake.
Diabetes is linked to nerve damage across the body, including in the brain. The CDC reports that diabetics are also more likely to struggle with mood shifts, memory and learning difficulties, and dementia later in life. Too-high blood sugar is known to damage the brain by restricting blood vessels that carry essential oxygen. And whereas you’ll feel the effects of low blood sugar on your brain immediately, high blood sugar may not be perceptible until you’re already pre-diabetic. Both are bad for your brain, but people live years without knowing their blood sugar is too high.
If you’re diabetic or pre-diabetic, talk to your Emcara provider about mitigating the condition’s effects on your brain.
To learn more about Emcara Health, call 1-800-728-0901.