OCT 23 2018
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OCT 23 2018
All Posts

Better habits - better brain health

Posted by: Monique A. Pearson, General Manager at Rutherford Rede in opinion

So, what exactly is brain health?

There’s an abundance of information available on the internet. What I have deduced through clicking through the plethora of website articles is that – put simply – throughout our life, our brain’s job is to help us make sense of the world. As if summarising the specification of a job description, our brain has the important role of helping to oversee our daily operations and life. What a terrifyingly responsible job!

Having synthesised the views of countless experts, brain health – it would seem – refers to the ability to remember, learn, play, concentrate and maintain a clear, active mind. It’s the ability to draw on the strengths of our brain – information management, logic, judgement, perspective and wisdom.

It is about making the most of our brain and helping reduce some risks to it as we age.

Did you know your brain is always changing?

Now, this process is called ‘brain plasticity’ and we touched on it briefly in a previous publication of Insights, which is available on the Rutherford Rede website. As we experience the world, practise habits and learn new information, our brains change; they grow new connections and repair broken ones.

As we age, our experiences and knowledge keep our brains working, developing and learning. You may experience noticeable changes, but not all changes are a sign of concern. We all lose our keys and forget people’s names. We do it throughout our entire lives. It’s not until we are older that these common mishaps cause us to worry. It’s also important to know there are several other reasons lapses in memory occur, like taking certain medication, lack of sleep and excessive alcohol.

What are ways to keep our brain young and healthy?

According to an article published in Harvard Health, every brain changes with age, and mental function changes along with it. Mental decline is common, and it's one of the most feared consequences of ageing. But cognitive impairment is not inevitable.
Below is a summary of what Harvard Health says are 12 ways we can help maintain brain function. Now, some of these may be familiar to you, however, I find it’s always helpful to have a gentle reminder to help keep things in perspective:

  1. Get mental stimulation: Read, take courses, try "mental gymnastics," such as word puzzles or math problems. Experiment with things that require manual dexterity as well as mental efforts, such as drawing, painting, and other crafts. While writing this article, a colleague suggested I visit the website of the Memory Foundation. Dr Allison Lamont and New Zealand educator Gillian Eadie have published a number of practical ‘brain exercises’ in the form of e-books (7-day brain boost planHealth memory workout; and How to improve your short-term memory) to help build brain resilience. I’ve just placed an order for all three.
  2. Get physical exercise: Research shows that using your muscles also helps your mind. Exercise lowers blood pressure, improves cholesterol levels, helps blood sugar balance and reduces mental stress, all of which can help our brain as well as our heart. Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki discusses in her TED Talk the science of how working out boosts our mood and memory – and protects our brain against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
  3. Improve our diet: Good nutrition can help our mind as well as our body. For example, people that eat a Mediterranean style diet that emphasises fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, unsaturated oils (olive oil) and plant sources of proteins are less likely to develop cognitive impairment and dementia. As we age, we need to take more care of our bodies, our brains and our nervous system, says culinary expert and author of the cookbook “Maggie’s Recipe for Life”. Maggie believes that good food can dramatically improve our quality of life – particularly as we age. The popular 73-year old cook teamed up with leading health expert Professor Ralph Martins to focus on identifying specific nutritional and lifestyle factors associated with avoiding cognitive decline. The recipe book contains over 200 recipes aimed at providing the nutrients we need for optimum brain health.
  4. Improve blood pressure: High blood pressure in midlife increases the risk of cognitive decline in later years. Stay lean, exercise regularly, limit alcohol intake, reduce stress, and eat a nutritious diet.
  5. Improve blood sugar: Diabetes is an important risk factor for dementia. As with our blood pressure, remember to eat right and exercise regularly.
  6. Improve cholesterol: High levels of bad cholesterol are associated with an increased risk of dementia. Diet, exercise, weight control, and avoiding tobacco will go a long way toward improving cholesterol levels.
  7. Consider low-dose aspirin: Some observational studies suggest that low-dose aspirin may reduce the risk of dementia, especially vascular dementia. Ask your GP if you are a candidate.
  8. Avoid tobacco: Avoid tobacco. In all its forms.
  9. Don't abuse alcohol: Excessive drinking is a major risk factor for dementia.
  10. Care for your emotions: According to the article, people who are anxious, depressed, sleep-deprived, or exhausted tend to score poorly on cognitive function tests. Poor scores don't necessarily predict an increased risk of cognitive decline in later years, but good mental health and restful sleep are certainly important goals.
  11. Protect your head: Moderate to severe head injuries, even without diagnosed concussions, increase the risk of cognitive impairment.
  12. Build social networks: Strong social ties have been associated with a lower risk of dementia, as well as lower blood pressure and longer life expectancy.

And in staying with this theme, we recently posted a TED Talk to our website which emphasises that strong social bonds throughout life can positively influence our well-being. In her talk, developmental psychologist Dr Susan Pinker reveals how in-person social interactions are not only necessary for human happiness but also could be a key to health and longevity. An important message for us all.

Bringing it all together

In the words of Dr Lamont: “Your memory is a living part of you that can grow and expand to meet the demands you make of it. Now is the time to build your memory resistance, the ‘cognitive reserve’ you need to have as a buffer against forgetting and other signs of memory loss that occur without intervention. Just as you know you need to keep physically fit to be healthy, so your brain needs exercise, too.”

And as we head into the festive season and contemplate spending time with our loved ones, I leave you with these parting words: Love your family. Spend time, be kind, and serve one another. Make no room for regrets. Tomorrow is not promised and today is short.

So, what exactly is brain health?

There’s an abundance of information available on the internet. What I have deduced through clicking through the plethora of website articles is that – put simply – throughout our life, our brain’s job is to help us make sense of the world. As if summarising the specification of a job description, our brain has the important role of helping to oversee our daily operations and life. What a terrifyingly responsible job!

Having synthesised the views of countless experts, brain health – it would seem – refers to the ability to remember, learn, play, concentrate and maintain a clear, active mind. It’s the ability to draw on the strengths of our brain – information management, logic, judgement, perspective and wisdom.

It is about making the most of our brain and helping reduce some risks to it as we age.

Did you know your brain is always changing?

Now, this process is called ‘brain plasticity’ and we touched on it briefly in a previous publication of Insights, which is available on the Rutherford Rede website. As we experience the world, practise habits and learn new information, our brains change; they grow new connections and repair broken ones.

As we age, our experiences and knowledge keep our brains working, developing and learning. You may experience noticeable changes, but not all changes are a sign of concern. We all lose our keys and forget people’s names. We do it throughout our entire lives. It’s not until we are older that these common mishaps cause us to worry. It’s also important to know there are several other reasons lapses in memory occur, like taking certain medication, lack of sleep and excessive alcohol.

What are ways to keep our brain young and healthy?

According to an article published in Harvard Health, every brain changes with age, and mental function changes along with it. Mental decline is common, and it's one of the most feared consequences of ageing. But cognitive impairment is not inevitable.
Below is a summary of what Harvard Health says are 12 ways we can help maintain brain function. Now, some of these may be familiar to you, however, I find it’s always helpful to have a gentle reminder to help keep things in perspective:

  1. Get mental stimulation: Read, take courses, try "mental gymnastics," such as word puzzles or math problems. Experiment with things that require manual dexterity as well as mental efforts, such as drawing, painting, and other crafts. While writing this article, a colleague suggested I visit the website of the Memory Foundation. Dr Allison Lamont and New Zealand educator Gillian Eadie have published a number of practical ‘brain exercises’ in the form of e-books (7-day brain boost planHealth memory workout; and How to improve your short-term memory) to help build brain resilience. I’ve just placed an order for all three.
  2. Get physical exercise: Research shows that using your muscles also helps your mind. Exercise lowers blood pressure, improves cholesterol levels, helps blood sugar balance and reduces mental stress, all of which can help our brain as well as our heart. Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki discusses in her TED Talk the science of how working out boosts our mood and memory – and protects our brain against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
  3. Improve our diet: Good nutrition can help our mind as well as our body. For example, people that eat a Mediterranean style diet that emphasises fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, unsaturated oils (olive oil) and plant sources of proteins are less likely to develop cognitive impairment and dementia. As we age, we need to take more care of our bodies, our brains and our nervous system, says culinary expert and author of the cookbook “Maggie’s Recipe for Life”. Maggie believes that good food can dramatically improve our quality of life – particularly as we age. The popular 73-year old cook teamed up with leading health expert Professor Ralph Martins to focus on identifying specific nutritional and lifestyle factors associated with avoiding cognitive decline. The recipe book contains over 200 recipes aimed at providing the nutrients we need for optimum brain health.
  4. Improve blood pressure: High blood pressure in midlife increases the risk of cognitive decline in later years. Stay lean, exercise regularly, limit alcohol intake, reduce stress, and eat a nutritious diet.
  5. Improve blood sugar: Diabetes is an important risk factor for dementia. As with our blood pressure, remember to eat right and exercise regularly.
  6. Improve cholesterol: High levels of bad cholesterol are associated with an increased risk of dementia. Diet, exercise, weight control, and avoiding tobacco will go a long way toward improving cholesterol levels.
  7. Consider low-dose aspirin: Some observational studies suggest that low-dose aspirin may reduce the risk of dementia, especially vascular dementia. Ask your GP if you are a candidate.
  8. Avoid tobacco: Avoid tobacco. In all its forms.
  9. Don't abuse alcohol: Excessive drinking is a major risk factor for dementia.
  10. Care for your emotions: According to the article, people who are anxious, depressed, sleep-deprived, or exhausted tend to score poorly on cognitive function tests. Poor scores don't necessarily predict an increased risk of cognitive decline in later years, but good mental health and restful sleep are certainly important goals.
  11. Protect your head: Moderate to severe head injuries, even without diagnosed concussions, increase the risk of cognitive impairment.
  12. Build social networks: Strong social ties have been associated with a lower risk of dementia, as well as lower blood pressure and longer life expectancy.

And in staying with this theme, we recently posted a TED Talk to our website which emphasises that strong social bonds throughout life can positively influence our well-being. In her talk, developmental psychologist Dr Susan Pinker reveals how in-person social interactions are not only necessary for human happiness but also could be a key to health and longevity. An important message for us all.

Bringing it all together

In the words of Dr Lamont: “Your memory is a living part of you that can grow and expand to meet the demands you make of it. Now is the time to build your memory resistance, the ‘cognitive reserve’ you need to have as a buffer against forgetting and other signs of memory loss that occur without intervention. Just as you know you need to keep physically fit to be healthy, so your brain needs exercise, too.”

And as we head into the festive season and contemplate spending time with our loved ones, I leave you with these parting words: Love your family. Spend time, be kind, and serve one another. Make no room for regrets. Tomorrow is not promised and today is short.

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