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6 Steps to Better Brain Health

In August 2022, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched its first position paper on brain health. It opens by stating:

“Brain health is an evolving concept, attracting increasing attention not only from the health sector but also from wider society, stimulating rich debate – and for good reasons. The brain and central nervous system are the command centre of the human body, controlling both conscious and unconscious body functions and thereby influencing every aspect of life.”

People become increasingly susceptible to dementia as they age. The WHO points out that population aging creates more and more cases of dementia for the health system to treat. Coping with the extra work and expense of caring for people with dementia is placing a great strain on individuals and society.

More and more people are seeing older relatives developing one or more of the many forms of dementia. And in many cases, they are actively involved in caring for someone who has the condition. The need to encourage a preventative approach to brain health in society is therefore more pressing than ever. Here are six steps we can all take to embrace that approach.

First Step: Acknowledging and Understanding

Prevention is better than cure, as the axiom goes. The first step we can take is to acknowledge in general, public discussion the very real possibility that any one of us could develop dementia. The more we can get younger people to be mindful of this risk, the better.

People generally know that if they don’t want to experience an old age of physical pain and exhaustion, they need to look after their bodies throughout their lives. It’s time we all talked about how our brain needs this kind of preventative approach just as much as the rest of our body does.

Second Step: Quality Sleep

Have you noticed how much better you feel after a good night’s sleep? And how grumpy and groggy you feel after you’ve slept badly? Scientific research now supports the idea that a good night’s sleep is critical not only to our physical health but also to our brain health.

Sleep is the time when your brain heals and renews itself at a cellular level. Good Sleep for Brain Health: Sleep Better Tonight for a Better Memory Tomorrow by Dr. Chris Wolfe discusses this topic in greater depth.

Third Step: Quality Exercise

So much has been written about how exercise affects the body as a whole. Gary L. Wenk has written an excellent book, Your Brain on Exercise, on the subject of how exercise affects the brain specifically. This book will give you plenty of motivation and ideas for keeping your brain in good shape through cardio and muscle conditioning.

But a physical workout isn’t the only type of exercise that can help your brain stay healthy. Doing purely cognitive activities is also an essential part of brain health. These can include games played with others – bridge and poker, for instance – and puzzles you do on your own, such as sudoku and crosswords.

Fourth Step: Quality Fuel

Food is our body’s fuel. What we eat is vital to our health. In September 2017, Dr. Walter Willett of Harvard University published Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy, a guide to disregarding all the myths prevalent in society about eating, and learning how to eat simply and wisely for good health, including brain health.

Eating for Cognitive Power, by John R. Torrance, is another excellent book that deals with this subject. The experts all advise eating a healthy diet of natural foods for the sake of your body and your brain.

Fifth Step: Retrain the Brain

Medical research is increasingly producing evidence that mental-health conditions such as depression and anxiety take a damaging physical toll on the brain. They also make it more difficult for us to take care of ourselves properly. Fortunately, with the right advice and support, we can retrain our brains so the thoughts they generate don’t lead us into depression and anxiety.

When I was very young – this was a time long before mental-health supports such as counseling were widely available – I decided during a very low period of my life that I wanted to feel happy rather than sad. I resolved to focus my thoughts on the better side of life and people, training my brain to look at myself and the world around me through rose-colored glasses. It wasn’t that I didn’t see the underside of humanity, simply that I chose to look the other way.

Nowadays, there are scientifically validated approaches that achieve a similar effect. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one example; it’s the technique that Seth J. Gillihan uses in his excellent Retrain Your Brain.

Sixth Step: Educate Ourselves About the Brain

The more you know about your brain, the more you understand how your lifestyle choices affect your brain health in the short and long term. The problem is, not many of us have the time or scientific background to follow the latest research publications. But there are more accessible sources of knowledge that we can turn to.

Gary L. Wenk has written an informative book, The Brain: What Everyone Needs to Know, that answers many of the questions that a curious mind might have, for instance, “What is an emotion and why do we have them?” The book is designed to make the complex biology of the brain accessible to the general reader.

Biohack Your Brain by neuroscientist Kristen Willeumier is another source of answers that I have found very helpful. It combines clinical experience and the latest research findings to show you how to improve brain performance.

Conclusions

We live in a time when the information and resources we need to keep our mental faculties sharp into old age are well within our grasp. And when you think about the consequences that population aging is already having on health services, grasping them feels more and more like a civic duty rather than a personal choice.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

Are you concerned about the health of your brain? Do you want to retain your mental faculties into old age? How do you take care of your brain? What lifestyle choices have you made that nourish your brain?

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Marylin Parkin

There seems to be so much that we don’t know, like medication prescribed, etc. still learning, reading and comparing.

Barb

I would add that we need to research all medications we are taking. Recently learned that anticholernigenics have been linked to dementia. Numerical articles and studies can be found. The list of anticholernigenic medications is long and some are available over the counter, Caveat Emptor!

Barb

Should say Numerous articles!

Alainnah Robertson

I couldn’t agree more. It’s quite frightening.

Thanks for this great article! I want to add that taking music lessons is well known to enhance brain function, and we give free piano lessons right here on Sixty and Me! Besides playing the piano and accordion I also take French lessons twice per week and I really enjoy it, though learning French is very difficult for me (that’s what makes it great for the brain of course). I am also careful to eat a lot of vegetables and I exercise daily. I do the best I can because I see the devastation dementia brings to my students and their families.

Alainnah Robertson

How correct you are! I’ve experienced the devastation of dementia first hand and it is a tragedy to be avoided at all costs.

gail

You’re right. It actually should be a civic duty to protect brain health. I never thought of it like that. Thank you.

Alainnah Robertson

Just as along as it doesn’t become an enforced duty! :)

The Author

Alainnah is 91 years old, lived on three continents, and has been a lifelong learner, pursuing knowledge and wisdom. She’s always formed groups to study together. She prefers to ask questions and enjoy what others have to say. Alainnah has compiled her group study sessions in a book, Mindfulness Together.

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