The health of the brain plays a critical role in almost everything we do: thinking, feeling, remembering, working, and playing. The good news is that we now know there's a lot you can do to help your brain stay healthier as you age. Recent research and media coverage reflects the growing interest in natural, non-drug based activities that can keep our minds sharp as we age. These steps might also reduce your risk of Alzheimer's disease or other dementia.
Latest research shows that lifestyle patterns and actions can, no matter our age, improve the health and level of functioning of our brains. What are the factors that can influence our brain health?
Four Pillars of Brain Health
Balanced nutrition: As a general guideline, what is good for the body is also good for the brain. Eating a variety of foods of different colors, including cold-water fish, and avoiding highly processed foods with added ingredients are recommended. Vegetables, particularly green, leafy ones, are also recommended. Few well-known supplements have shown long-term benefits on memory and other cognitive functions.
Stress management: Chronic stress reduces and can even inhibit the formation of new neurons in the brain. This is especially detrimental to memory functioning. Meditation, yoga and other calming activities are effective in countering stress. Biofeedback is another more, high-tech option to manage stress.
Physical exercise: Physical exercise improves learning through increased blood supply and growth hormone levels in the body. Cardiovascular exercise that gets the heart beating has been shown to have the greatest effect.
Mental stimulation: Stimulation strengthens the connections between neurons in the brain, thereby improving neuron survival and cognitive functioning. Good mental exercise requires novelty, variety, and increasing levels of challenge.
(From: Sharp Brains Guide to Brain Fitness, Sharp Brains Inc., 2009).
Brain stimulation consists of engaging in stimulating activities. These can be almost any type of activity, including leisure activities that combine intellectual, social and physical elements. Some of these include: reading, visiting friends and relatives, going to movies or restaurants and walking for pleasure. There is no one single prescription for maintaining good cognitive health, and there is no clear research on how all of these factors interact. The National Institute on Aging is sponsoring research to address these questions.
Currently, there are many "brain-training" programs. Some are available online, and some can be used on devices such as a Nintendo DSi. These generally offer specific training in such areas as speed, memory development, attention, cognitive flexibility and problem solving. Some limited research shows that specific training in some of these areas does carry over to everyday life activities. While much research is either underway or planned to determine which programs provide which benefits to brain functioning, many professionals in the field feel that brain-training software-based programs can complement and enhance common daily activities. They are best suited for delivering a mix of novelty and variety at constantly increasing levels of difficulty that provide challenge.
Enhancing and maintaining good health through the adoption of healthy lifestyles are keys to good brain and cognitive health. Managing risk factors for chronic disease is also a critical element for maintaining good cognitive health. El Camino Hospital provides many community services, lectures and health fairs to help you learn about good nutrition, how to stop smoking, to find social support and take advantage of free health screenings. See Wellness and Education Services for more information. Also, for assistance with chronic diseases, see Chronic Disease and Self-Management.
The Changing Brain in Healthy Aging, National Institute on Aging
Top 50 Brain Teasers and Games, Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness for All
Free Brain Games Online, Lumosity.com
Free Brain Stimulation Activities, American Association of Retired People