It’s pretty safe to say that almost everyone has experienced momentary forgetfulness at one time or another in their life. Those times when we cannot remember where we left our car keys or why we came into the kitchen.
As we age, these times may seem more frequent and we may wonder if there is something we could be doing to improve the health of our brains. Do we have a role in staying mentally sharp into our retirement years? Happily the answer to this question is yes, there are several things we can do. Four of these things are physical exercise, eating certain foods, mind exercises, and restorative sleep.
First, let’s talk about exercise. In this day and age, it is pretty well known and accepted that regular physical exercise is important for overall good health. What we may not be thinking about when we lace up our sneakers, however, is what it is doing for our brains. Exercise, especially aerobic exercise, boosts brain function in several ways. During exercise our heart is pumping more blood and that gets more oxygen to the brain. Also, exercise helps us release several hormones, like HGH (Human Growth Hormone). HGH helps stimulate the growth of new connections between brain cells. In fact, the natural reduction in HGH as we age has proven to be directly linked with poor brain function, so increasing it will have a direct and positive benefit to our brains. Finally, exercise is good for the emotional part of our brain. Most of us have heard of the “runner’s high,” which is a result of an increase in endorphins, one of our “feel good” hormones, and may help alleviate mild depression. Keeping a strong and limber body will aid in keeping a strong and limber brain.
Second, our diet plays a large role in brain health. A healthy body leads to a healthy brain. Certain foods are known to boost brain health and are relatively easy to work into our daily diets. Some examples of brain boosting foods are:
· Olive oil – This oil is high in vitamin E, which is a potent antioxidant, and also rich in omega-3 fatty acids. A great way to boost our intake of olive oil is to make it the base for our salad dressings.
· Wild caught, fatty fish – Salmon, mackerel, sardines, among others, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA, which is known to be important in the normal functioning of neurons in the brain.
· Dark green, leafy vegetables – Spinach and kale are rich in vitamin E and folate.
· Avocado – Rich in vitamin E and also vitamin C, in addition to essential fats.
· Berries – Blueberries, strawberries and acai berries are rich in antioxidants and some feel can “put the brakes” on age related memory loss.
· Nuts and seeds – Packed with vitamin E and essential fats.
· Whole grains – Fiber-rich whole grains may aid in the reduction of inflammation and other vascular risk factors.
Many of these foods will also aid in good gut and heart health, important components for a healthy brain. A good rule of thumb is if it is good for your heart, it is good for your brain.
Third, let’s play some mind games. There are a number of ways we can boost our brain function and mental acuity through mental exercises. This doesn’t have to be hard or expensive, we don’t have to subscribe to a website that costs money. This can be as simple as memorizing something new everyday. Memorization trains the brain for learning and information retention. We can also boost brain function by doing word puzzles, such as crossword or Sudoko puzzles. These games should be novel, varied, and challenging. Reading and even volunteering and socializing can also keep us mentally sharp. Most experts agree that staying active and participating fully in life can play a very important role in the health of our brains. Remember that our brains respond well to variety, so mix it up a bit. And remember the old saying, “you’re never too old to learn something new.”
Finally, get to bed at night. Good, restorative sleep is vital to a healthy body and brain. It is during sleep that our bodies recover from the day on a cellular level. It is during sleep that our bodies repair and heal. Lack of good sleep can interrupt the neural pathways that allow information to pass from one area of the brain to another. Lack of good sleep can negatively impact our cognitive and decision making skills and leave us feeling sick and even depressed during the day. It can impair our memory and our ability to learn. So, let’s get to bed at night and have strong mental acuity during the day.
In most cases, as with much of our health, keeping our brains strong is something we can impact pretty significantly through lifestyle. We can have an important role in improving our chances of remaining mentally sharp well into retirement and beyond. There are those, of course, who have a family history of dementia and/or Alzheimer’s Disease or who may be experiencing memory loss or loss of cognitive function, and in those cases the advice of a healthcare provider should be sought.