Maintaining brain health and function enables you to make decisions about your life and overall health. Your brain is your most powerful organ, yet it weighs only 3 pounds. Your brain is divided into left and right sides, with the left controlling movement on the right side and vice versa. The brain has three main parts:
- The cerebrum, the largest of the three parts, controls thinking, remembering, feeling and movement.
- The cerebellum sits under the cerebrum and controls coordination and balance.
- The brain stem, which connects the brain to the spinal cord, controls automatic functions such as breathing, digestion, blood pressure and heart rate.
A network of blood vessels nourishes the brain with fuel and oxygen. An adult brain contains about 100 billion nerve cells or neurons. Neurons send signals that control thoughts, memories and feelings. Nerve cells send out tiny electrical charges to connection points or synapses. Tiny bursts of chemicals called neurotransmitters carry signals to other cells.
Alzheimer’s Disease, the most common form of dementia, disrupts this process and destroys neuron cells. Dementia is the term used to describe a condition of mental decline severe enough to interfere with daily life and activities. Age and genetics are two uncontrollable risk factors.
Alzheimer’s Disease causes nerve cell death and tissue loss and over time the brain itself dramatically shrinks. In the Alzheimer’s brain, thinking, planning and remembering areas are damaged. Brain shrinkage prevents the formation of new memories and fluid filled spaces in the brain grow larger. Abnormal clusters of protein fragments, called plaque, build up between the nerve cells. Twisted strands of a different protein, called tangles, are found in dead and dying nerve cells. Plaques and tangles are thought to be the cause of brain cell death and tissue loss. Tangles destroy a vital cell transport system blocking access of nutrients and oxygen to cells. Plaque and tangles spread as the disease progresses and the rate of progression varies greatly. Most people live an average of 8 years after diagnosis. Some live longer depending upon age at diagnosis and other health conditions.
Early stages of Alzheimer’s affect memory, thinking, planning and organization. In advanced Alzheimer’s, the ability to communicate and care for oneself is lost and sadly, family members and loved ones are not recognized.
Like any other ‘muscle’, the brain must be exercised to in order to maintain and rebuild neurons as older ones wear out. Memory is a ‘muscle’ that needs to be used to improve.
Some brain healthy lifestyle choices include:
- Stay physically active. Physical activity provides good blood flow to the brain and encourages growth of new brain cells. Aerobic exercise improves oxygen consumption providing brain function benefits. Physical activity that also involves mental activity is very valuable for maintaining brain health.
- Adopt a brain healthy, heart healthy diet. Heart health and brain health are directly correlated. High cholesterol is thought to contribute to brain cell damage. A low fat, low cholesterol diet, rich in antioxidant providing fruits and vegetables, can help protect brain cells and reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
- Manage your body weight. Studies show that obese adults are twice as likely to develop dementia. Add in high cholesterol and high blood pressure and your risk increases six fold. Healthy diet and moderation are keys to good overall health of both the brain and body.
- Socialize! Social interaction helps maintain brain vitality. Leisure activities that combine physical, mental and social activities reduce the risk of developing dementia. So travel, play bridge, dance, volunteer, play golf with a foursome or doubles tennis and stimulate the mind and body.
- Engage the mind. Learning new skills challenges the brain, stimulates increased vitality and the production of brain cells and connections. Daily brain activities such as reading, writing, playing strategy games, solving brain teaser puzzles, attending lectures or plays and enrolling in adult education courses are all good ways to commit to lifetime learning and build your capacity to form and retain cognitive association.
- Reduce stress. Chronic stress leads to excess cortisol levels which leads to impaired memory. Find some time each day to relax. Take a walk, a bath, meditate, read, practice yoga or tai chi, pet your dog, snuggle up with loved ones, anything that relaxes both the mind and body and eases tension. Better yet, go fishing and then consume those heart healthy Omega 3’s.
- Use the brain ‘muscle’. Memory is a ‘muscle’ than needs to be exercised. Rely less on electronic devices and practice your memory skills. Creating rhymes and patterns strengthens the memory connections.
- Supplements are believed to preserve and improve brain health. vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, vitamin D, magnesium, folate and omega 3’s may all aid in lowering your risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
Simply put, keep learning, eat well, exercise, pay attention, stay active, challenge yourself, use every opportunity to practice your memory skills and reduce your overall chances of developing dementia. Lead a brain healthy lifestyle and your brain will stay stronger and serve you longer. Vary your habits regularly to create new brain pathways and keep those neurons firing. Finally, always supplement your diet with brain boosting vitamins!