Have you ever gone into the kitchen and can’t remember why? Or you can’t remember someone’s name while speaking to them? You may have missed an appointment because it slipped your mind. These kinds of memory lapses can happen at any age, but we tend to get more upset by them as we get older because we fear it’s only downhill from there. As I constantly comb over all areas of my health, cognitive health becomes increasingly important especially as I get older. Also, it seems wise to address this area of health now, while in my forties, as opposed to waiting until I forget completely.

 

brain health, brain size, aging and the brain, how to keep brain healthyBrain aging and memory loss were once thought to happen because neurons died or stopped functioning. Neuroscientists believed we were born with a certain amount of neurons and as we got older and little by little they were lost permanently. New research shows that the neurotransmitter dopamine can trigger the formation of new neurons in adult brains. In fact, these dopamine neurons move directly to the brain associated with higher brain function and could be the basis of mature wisdom. There’s hope yet!

 

Even though we can form new neurons throughout life, it doesn’t mean our brains don’t change as we age. Over the years, brain weight and volume decreases. Between the ages of twenty and ninety, the brain loses five to ten percent of its weight. But age isn’t the only contributing factor to brain shrinkage. Our lifestyle most certainly plays a big part. According to the Framingham Offspring Cohort Study, chronic health conditions such as diabetes and bad habits such as smoking accelerated brain shrinkage.

 

Other bad habits can trigger brain changes, too. Poor diet and lack of exercise can contribute to cardiovascular disease that reduces blood flow to the brain. An unhealthy lifestyle, in general, may increase our chances of developing dementia, including Alzheimer’s.

 

So, how can we stay sharp as we age? Here are six ways to help improve brain function:

 

  1. Exercise your brain. Brain games and certain puzzles and brainteasers help create new associations between different parts of the brain, which keeps it sharp. Other exercises that challenge the brain are things like doing normal activities with your non-dominant hand like brushing your teeth or combing your hair.
  2. Vary activities. Most of us here are already physically active, which is extremely important for brain health, but consider challenging your body – and brain – in a variety of ways from time to time. Mix up exercise routines, do something you haven’t done in a while whether it’s hiking or tossing a ball around. This variety is as healthy for your brain as it is your body.
  3. Eat brain food. We all know that a good, clean diet will improve all areas of our health, but there are many studies and an increasing amount of evidence that certain foods slow mental decline. Topping the list of brain-boosting food is any food high in Omega 3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA, which has been linked to a lower risk of dementia and improved focus and memory. And you were just taking your fish oil to keep your joints from hurting.
  4. Try new things outside of the gym. Take up a language, an instrument, memorize poetry. Asking your brain to do some new tricks keeps it active and able to learn.
  5. Volunteer. Research shows that this can lower your stress levels and increase mental functioning. Volunteering adds to a person’s well-being and overall health. Not only does it feel good, but it promotes brain health by raising self esteem.
  6. Socialize. We are social animals and according to a recent study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, we need a variety of brain stimulation, including social activity, to keep our minds sharp. This is especially true later in life, when aging takes its toll on memory and other complex neurological processes. In the study, older adults who were less socially active than those who were socially active had both cognitive and physical limitations.

 

Keeping our bodies fit is a great endeavor, but if our minds don’t stay sharp, how will we enjoy the benefits? We work hard for an enduring quality of life in all areas of health so throwing in some brain teasers along with your squats will only benefit us especially in the long run. I can only hope that when I’m in my seventies, I’m as with it as Stephen Jepson featured in this video below who has made life a fun playground that constantly challenges him.

 

  

 

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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