Give a Boost to Your Brain Health

For such a small organ, the brain is vast in its capabilities – the source of intelligence and bodily function, interpretation and perception, and the controller of behavior, speech, emotion and more. In short, the brain is what makes humans who we are.

How can we keep this vital organ thriving for as long as possible?

“Brain health encompasses a variety of things, but if I were to boil it down as simply as possible, it would be this: If whatever you are doing is good for your heart, you’re probably on track for what is good for your brain,” said Robert Fallows, PsyD, of Samaritan Neuropsychology – Albany.

The Heart-Brain Connection

The brain is fueled from nutrients carried by the blood.

“While the brain makes up only a very small percentage of our body weight – it weighs only 2 to 3 pounds – it uses about 20% of the blood in our body,” Dr. Fallows noted.

“Because of that, the more traditional risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, atrial fibrillation (afib) – conditions we think of as occurring outside the brain – have a tremendous impact on accelerating the aging process and creating more cognitive problems as people get older,” Dr. Fallows explained.

Brain Boosters

To keep your brain in peak condition, follow these tips, which can also reduce your risk for diabetes, heart disease, kidney and liver problems.

1.  Get Moderate Exercise

“Studies have shown that exercise is effective in pushing off the development of dementia in people with mild cognitive impairment, which is the precursor for dementia,” Dr. Fallows said.

But you don’t need to be a marathoner to help your brain; moderate exercise is enough.

“People who get their heart rate up a bit in a way that is safe, such as swimming, which is also easy on the joints, 2 to 3 times a week, tend to be at a lower risk for dementia,” explained Dr. Fallows.

2.  Eat Sensibly

“You don’t have to make complex adjustments to diet, just move away from the typical American diet of red meat, processed foods, refined carbohydrates, fried foods and high sugar,” Dr. Fallows noted.

“There is a growing body of research that shows what happens in the digestive system – the gut microbiome, intestines and liver — can influence what happens in the brain,” he said. “A healthy diet is so incredibly important to the brain.”

The evidence suggests that the Mediterranean Diet, the Dash Diet, or a combination of the two called the MIND Diet, offer the best approaches to feeding your brain.

“The entire principle behind those diets is to limit red meat, eat more fish and poultry and green, leafy vegetables, cut down on fatty oils and fried foods, and if you have to use an oil, use olive oil,” said Dr. Fallows.

3.  Learn New Things

Learning new things leads to two positive changes in the brain – neuroplasticity and cognitive reserve. Both are helpful in staving off dementia.

Neuroplasticity: “The thought used to be that if someone injures their brain, the damaged neurons will never grow back, but that theory was debunked. It turns out, the brain is constantly changing and rewiring itself, a process we call neuroplasticity. If I keep challenging myself and thinking in new ways, then I am keeping my brain active,” Dr. Fallows explained.

Cognitive Reserve: “When a person learns new things and gains new life experiences, we keep the brain agile, a process called cognitive reserve. We become more resilient to solving problems and coping with challenges. People who build up greater brain resilience tend to be more resistant to neurodegenerative or dementia processes,” said Dr. Fallows.

The brain seems to thrive on tasks that are challenging but not overly frustrating to us. Replace mindless or automatic tasks and go for ones that will stretch your abilities.

Learning new things doesn’t need to be extravagant but could include taking an adult education class on a topic that interests you, taking up art, such as painting or woodworking, or learning how to cook, or make basic car repairs.

“Just remember to balance your expectations with what you’re learning – don’t expect to pick up playing a new instrument, for example, as easily as a teenager. As we age, we don’t learn as quickly as we used to, so just be reasonable with what you hope to accomplish,” Dr. Fallows added.

4.  Socialize More

Spending time with others, even if you’re an introvert, is important to brain health.

“You don’t need to be the life of the party. Just having one or two good relationships can benefit the brain,” noted Dr. Fallows. “When you’re getting together with other people who you really enjoy, you’re engaged, and your brain is activated by that.”

On the other hand, relationships that are toxic or cause stress can have the opposite effect, causing more wear and tear on the brain.

5.  Choose Brain Games Over TV

The jury is still out on how beneficial “thinking games” like Sudoku, Wordle or online memory games are for the brain.

“If I regularly play a game on my iPad or do daily crosswords, does it make me better at doing the game, or does it improve my performance in remembering things in my day-to-day life? The research isn’t that clear,” noted Dr. Fallows.

“What I tell people is that if you’re playing an online game or doing a puzzle, it is better for your brain than something passive like watching TV or movies. The game is keeping your brain more active and there is potential value in that,” he said.

Preventive Health Is Key

Ultimately, developing good overall health habits is key to keeping the brain at its best.

“I think that people sometimes forget that our body is this whole interdependent system. It’s impossible to talk about brain health without talking about how the rest of the body is doing,” Dr. Fallows noted.

While there are elements to brain health beyond our control – aging, for example, naturally brings on some cognitive decline and genetics may also play a role — the factors most within our control are lifestyle habits.

“Changing our lifestyle habits are not always easy things to change. Take it slowly and start with small steps. If you need help making changes stick, ask your primary care provider for a referral to a behavioral health specialist who can help you make positive changes,” said Dr. Fallows.

“Keep in mind that it is never too late to start making changes to improve your health.”

Robert Fallows, PsyD, is senior medical director for behavioral health with Samaritan Medical Group and practices at Samaritan Neuropsychology – Albany.  Contact him at 541-812-5760.  

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