I had the pleasure of presenting to a group of wonderful seniors last week at an event called Cross Train Your Brain in the Kansas City area. This daylong event, focused on brain health, is offered annually and always has maximum attendance. It seems the topic of keeping the brain healthy is endlessly fascinating.
Developing dementia is one of the greatest fears for people over age 65. Most of us are aware that age is the biggest risk factor for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia; and the population is aging rapidly as the boomers are now turning 65 at the rate of 10,000 per day.
So, I thought it would be a good time to update you on the latest research related to keeping the brain healthy for a lifetime. Many people think of brain health as consisting of doing a daily crossword puzzle. While it is true that staying involved in mentally challenging activity is important-there is much more to it than that.
The brain is an amazingly complex organism that is impacted by everything we do from a health perspective, healthy or unhealthy. Many experts agree that what is good for the heart is good for the brain. Below are the top five things we all need to do to maintain a healthy brain:
- Stay socially connected. Research has clearly shown that social isolation is a risk factor for developing dementia. Duke researcher and author of the book Keep Your Brain Alive, Lawrence Katz says that there is evidence that people are the most unpredictable things you can encounter, which is probably one reason that social contact is good for brain health.
- Exercise. In his book entitled Spark: The Revolutionary Science of Exercise and the Brain author John J. Ratey discusses the research behind the impact of exercise on the brain. He explains that exercise rebalances brain chemicals and also causes the release of a substance called brain derived neurotropic factor or BDNF that stimulates the formation of new brain cells.
- Keep learning new things. Research over the past 20 years has led to the understanding that our brains can rewire themselves. When exposed to novel and challenging activities the brain can form new connections between neurons and support the new cells that are formed by exercising. Engage in things that require creative thinking, social contact and some good stress. Examples might be joining a theatre or choral group, learning a new language or learning to play a musical instrument.
- Keep stress under control. Stress hormones that are secreted during the “fight or flight” response are designed to give a fast burst of energy that benefits us in the short run, but causes damage in the long run. In a nut shell, stress is toxic to brain cells.
- Eat good food. There is evidence to support a Mediterranean style diet for good brain health. This means lots of colorful fruits and vegetables, low in saturated fat, high in Omega 3 fats, high in beans and legumes and a glass of red wine per day-but only one, more is likely to cause more harm than good.
Of course some people can do all of these things and still develop dementia. These are things that lower risk, but as of yet we don’t have anything that is 100% preventative. That discovery is yet to come, and with the population aging that way it is, let’s hope it is soon!