Keeping Your Brain Young
As your mother probably told you, looks can be deceiving. This may be even more true when it comes to your brain. Scientists have long known that certain areas of the brain tend to shrink in size as we age.
Poor diet, stress, dehydration, and or a lack of sleep can all contribute to brain shrinkage, which can be seen during medical tests such as a CT (computerized tomography) scan.
Besides losing neurons (specialized nerve cells within the brain), the brain also tends to experience reduced blood flow, and lower levels of interaction in some brain regions over time. Not surprisingly, this led to the largely unquestioned (until recently) assumption that changes to the structure of the brain indicated a natural decline in cognitive function as we age.
After all, it seemed obvious that older people tend to forget names and may have trouble creating new memories or learning as fast as they did when they were younger. But what seemed to be once gloomily chiseled in stone, may a be only part of the story when it comes to aging and the brain.
Startling Research Conclusions
It now appears that although your brain may change and even decline in some areas, it can actually become stronger in others. Not only that, but making some simple lifestyle changes now, can pay huge dividends when it comes to your overall brain health down the road.
Neurogenesis and Brain Plasticity
According to studies like one from Harvard medical School, brains may even be more regenerative than we once believed. In a process known as neurogenesis, the brain creates roughly 700 new neurons in certain areas of the brain every day.
That may not seem like a lot when compared to the billions of neurons in a single brain, but new neurons play a critical role in keeping your brain going strong. Newly-born neurons may also hold the key to brain plasticity.
Brain plasticity refers to the ability of the brain to seek new connections between brain areas when damaged. This is especially critical for dementia patients who experience a slow decline due to the abnormal buildup of protein fragments called amyloid plaques.
Moreover, dendrites (branch-like extensions of neurons) can become more robust as we age, especially if we focus on brain healthy lifestyle habits. In the same sense that older bodies need regular exercise, your mind needs to stay engaged in life too.
Just as you would not expect an old truck with weeds growing out if it in a field to run like a brand-new Tesla, you can’t ignore your physical needs and then wonder why you cannot perform as well as you did before.
Healthy Brains Over Time
Healthy brain aging can mean that although you still might you lose your keys more often or forget someone’s name, you may also gain a deeper understanding of things that once eluded you. Stronger dendritic connections can enable older brains to grasp things more holistically, rather simply seeing everything as the sum of its parts.
Seeing the Forrest Because of the Trees
Like a Monet painting, the individual brushstrokes and smudges of color can give way to a deeper grasp of the beautiful symmetry that permeates a complete painting. Whereas in our younger years we may be might miss subtle, nuanced or overarching meanings, as we age, this can change for the better.
The old adage about missing the forest for the trees becomes less applicable as the brain becomes more adept at not only seeing the forest, but tree-covered mountaintops as well. Like riding in a plane which is gaining altitude, we can take in sweeping new vistas, even though we may not be able to spot branches or make out the details of individual leaves any more.
Having Fun Can Help Protect Your Brain
While that sounds like a lot of work, studies have shown that having fun, playing games, solving puzzles and simply being engaged in things you enjoy, can not only enrich your life, but also improve the way your mind works too. It may also be the best way to boost mental acuity as you age.
Having fun could be the very thing that helps you keep a healthy brain. One study published in Psychology Today, showed that even playing challenging video games caused significant beneficial changes in the hippocampus, cerebellum and prefrontal cortex.
These brain areas are related to memory formation, problem solving, and fine motor skills. The results were even more pronounced in people who were more engaged in playing games. In other words, when playing is more enjoyable to the player.
The greater the interest you have in an activity or hobby, the more you feel absorbed by it, the greater the benefit to your brain. Activities like painting, solving puzzles, reading books, or others in which you are so focused you lose track of time, all improve your brain’s ability to focus and function.
Paint or Play an Instrument
Don’t play an instrument? Try learning to play one. Studies have show that even listening to music can improve certain areas of the brain.
Simply trying to learn a new skill or language gives your brain a much-needed workout. Taking up hobbies such as painting, or sculpting may can improve your mood as well. You don’t have to be a Rembrandt to reap the rewards of art.
Can’t paint or draw? Try adult coloring books which often feature complex and interesting designs that can help you stay engaged. Even playing board games or cards, can help prevent certain kinds of brain decline and dementia.
Get Out and Move!
Besides interesting hobbies, moderate weekly low-impact exercise, such as walking, dancing, water aerobics, yard work, tai chi, or yoga can also lower your risk of developing dementia. Not to mention the fact that regular exercise also can help stave off depression while also lowering the risk of diabetes, heart attacks and strokes.
In addition to enriching your life, staying engaged in social activities can improve brain function too. In 2012, for instance, the Journal of Experimental Gerontology published a study that showed that social relationships can have a positive impact on the health of your brain.
The takeaway to better brain health is this: stay involved. Whether that means reading, gathering with friends (or even online via social media if you cannot physically leave home), solving problems such as cross word puzzles, or playing games, all of it can help your brain age very well indeed.
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This content does not represent medical advice. It is not meant to diagnose or treat any condition. It is not intended as a substitute for the advice of a qualified medical provider.