How has your memory been lately? As good as ever? Remember names easily? Find the word you want quickly? The hard truth as you get older is – probably not. Loss of brain cells starts in adulthood, and by the time we’re 50, we’re losing 1% of our brain each year. And losing cells in our brain is not like losing the other weight we so often want to get rid of! When we lose brain cells, we lose the very neurons that let us think, remember, and manage our life. One percent loss. Every year. That means that in the span of 20 years, we lose 20%. That’s not good. But it doesn’t have to happen that way. You can change the process, stop the loss, and even grow new neurons. Let’s look at five powerful factors that research says will make a difference in brain health: nutrition, exercise, sleep, learning, and meditation.
– Nutrition: Sugar increases early onset dementia, and inflames your brain. Hard to avoid in our culture, but worth considering. Omega-3s feed and help heal your brain. That one’s much easier – a krill supplement actually can help keep your brain younger and healthier. The Mediterranean diet slows cognitive decline in multiple studies, as well as reducing heart disease. Could you add one new Mediterranean dish a month? What’s good for your heart is good for your brain – which means you get double the impact from your choices.
– Exercise: A recent meta-analysis of 39 randomized clinical trials of physical activity show physical activity is strongly linked to slowing of cognitive decline. The research is consistent – exercise makes a difference. Simply walking 40 minutes, 3 times a week has been shown to stop the loss of brain mass, and actually add new brain cells – adding 2% brain mass in new cells in a year, instead of losing 1%. And this was true even for the most elderly walkers. What if you added 2% of brain mass a year, instead of losing 1%? What would mean to you, over the next 10 years?
– Sleep: Sleep is important for your mood, but it’s also important for the health of your brain. During sleep, there are actual structural changes to your brain – helpful spaces expand, and stress-related areas recede. Sleep helps protect against obesity, and reduces stress and depression, all of which are associated with cognitive decline. How is your sleep? Exercise and meditation are good ways to sleep better, and strengthen your brain at the same time.
– Learning: Learning something new will strengthen your brain. The catch is, it has to be something hard for you to learn. Not just working through a new puzzle, but working at something that takes real effort. Learning a new language or a new instrument may give you the brain workout you need. Frankly, you’ll never be really great at the new language or instrument that you begin to learn as an older adult. But that’s not why you’re doing it. You’re doing it so you will have more brain to work with. And what the heck – you might not be great, but you will be able to kick out a few jams and make yourself known on your next trip!
– Meditation: For most people, meditation is the easiest, most enjoyable way of adding brain cells. New meditators who practiced 30 minutes a day for only 8 weeks showed significant, measurable increases in brain matter in the parts of the brain associated with memory – as well as parts of the brain associated with a positive sense of self, and increased ability to manage stress. Do you know how to meditate? It is easy, free, and enjoyable. It can be as simple as paying attention to your breath for 10 minutes a day. Or you can try using a guided meditation, rich with healing imagery, to learn how to meditate. It’s easy, and relaxing, comforting to do. And it’s a powerful tool for building a healthy brain. Choose any one of these areas – the easiest one, the one you like best, and begin your brain work. Support yourself on your road to a healthy memory and a healthy brain. (By Deborah Kukal, Ph.D.)