As much as we would like to leave the worry about brain health to our older years, the truth is the biggest risk factor for brain disease is lifestyle – how we live each day through our whole life. Here are 7 compelling reasons to build a resilient brain starting today, and 12 lifestyle habits you can embrace that will keep your brain sharp at every age.
1. The seeds for cognitive disease are planted decades before symptoms appear.
Your brain doesn’t just suddenly stop functioning when you develop dementia and Alzheimer’s, it takes many years, even decades for plaques and tangles to build to the point that they clog brain function and shut down pathways permanently. This discovery is a great gift to anyone 20-65 years old. It means you have the power to protect your brain over many years if you know how. Until, and if ever, a cure for Alzheimer’s can be found this is terrific news. In the meantime, learn the risks and do everything you can to protect your brain.
2. Your brain subscribes to the rule of “use it or lose it.”
This rule applies to every brain, young and old. You were born with a brain full of neural networks ready to grow and spark and learn. The ideal is to maintain these throughout your whole life. If you fail to keep these neural networks active, whatever skills, aptitudes and talents you don’t use will shrink and de-activate the associated brain networks. AND the older you get, the harder it is to get them up and running again. The good news is that it is never too late, so do your very best to grow, spark and learn every day.
3. “Cognitive reserves” that protect your brain are built over many years.
The two best ways to build brain reserves are a lifetime full of learning and physical activity, so start building reserves when you’re young and don’t stop. Reserves act as a “spare battery” to protect your brain and body, and get you through hard times brought on by illness, stress, injury and other hazards in life. Life events can and do take a serious toll on both mental and physical health, so you want to start young to build a good supply.
4. If you have a family member with dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease your risks go up.
While most neuroscientists believe there is a hereditary factor associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s, having a family member with brain disease does not mean you will succumb! Read reason #5 below to learn why…
5. You can and do influence how your genes “express” themselves.
(It’s called Epigenetics). Even if you carry a gene for a particular disease, lots of complex things go into whether or not the disease shows up in your body. A brain-healthy lifestyle can lower your risk by up to 80%, helping delay or even prevent the “expression” of brain disease. To make sure you are influencing your genes in a positive way, start brain-healthy lifestyle habits young and don’t stop!
6. Your parents need you to teach them this stuff!
Researchers project that 1 in 3 people will die with dementia or Alzheimer’s. Modeling and talking about a brain-healthy lifestyle in your own life is a great way to teach it to your parents. Everything you can do to encourage and support brain health in your parents has the potential to save them (and you) from years of disability, heartbreak and extremely costly medical and facility care.
7. Concussions increase your risk.
More and more professional boxers and football players who suffered multiple concussions early in their careers are developing brain diseases later in life. And as knowledge expands, researchers are identifying the negative effects of concussions in all too many high school and college kids. If you suffered 3 or more concussions from sports or other injuries at any age, your risk for brain disease increases dramatically. The best thing you can do to get the odds back in your favor is to learn how to protect your brain going forward.
12 Lifestyle Habits that protect your brain starting NOW
- Stay in school (or go back) for a minimum of 13 years. More is better. Education keeps your brain flexible, youthful and strong. Try to take some kind of class at least once a year to keep learning new things and enhancing neural networks. Do this for the rest of your life. Formal education is especially powerful. It structures your thought processes, challenges your perceptions and forces you to do things you wouldn’t do otherwise. It builds resiliency and ‘cognitive reserves’. It puts you in a social situation that reinforces learning through give-and-take. Every year you spend learning contributes to a lifetime of cognitive strength. Lack of education can be as hazardous to your health as smoking!
- Keep it moving! Stay active and exercise, or start now if it’s not already part of your life. If you don’t enjoy athletics, find ways to move around and stay active throughout your normal day—take a walk during your coffee break, choose the stairs instead of the elevator, get up from your desk and stretch as often as you can during the day. Dance, sing, laugh, have fun all at the same time! If you stop being active your brain suffers as much if not more than your body.
- Travel and explore the world. Once we reach adulthood, the responsibilities of work and family life can box us into a predictable routine. Travel is one of the very best ways to break out of the mold and support your whole brain in the process. By changing your environment, meeting new people, relaxing, having fun, and engaging in meaningful new experiences, you can activate a wide spectrum of neural pathways neglected in daily routines.
- Take breaks from your routine. Even a few minutes, hours or days will make a difference. Mixing things up by stepping away from routine refreshes the mind, removes stress, and increases productivity. Brain pathways tend to “rut” in the familiar, like deep tire tracks in the mud. Over time it gets harder and harder to think outside the rut, resulting in a loss of creativity, problem-solving, and new perspectives. A lifetime of being stuck in a rut can be deadly, as the “use it or lose it” rule of neuroplasticity kicks in. You’re born with the potential to do many different things, but neural networks present at birth will shut down if they are not used. Ideally you want to keep these pathways open across your entire lifespan.
- Do what matters to you. If you have a passion in life, go for it! If you don’t know yet what really matters to you, this becomes a terrific excuse to try many different things until your goals and preferences become clear. Doing what you love doesn’t have to be just about a job; it’s ideally a way of life. Having a strong sense of purpose in life has been found to greatly improve cognitive function and overall health—even among people with many other risk factors for dementia.
- Care deeply for your friends and family, and let them care for you in return. It’s really good for both your brains! Beginning at birth your brain is completely wired to respond to other people – doing so literally lights up your brain. Having loving, predictable and safe relationships in your life, as well as exciting new ones, is the best of all worlds. Work to keep your relationships strong, protect yourself from abusive or toxic relationships, and build a network of caring people around you. Being part of a community, no matter how you define it, is living the best life. You will live happier, longer and healthier.
- Get 7 to 9 hours of good quality sleep every night. Anyone who has suffered a bad night’s sleep knows that it can leave you feeling groggy and forgetful. The impact of sleepless nights builds up over time. When you sleep, the brain flushes out waste products, including the proteins that cause Alzheimer’s disease; studies of brain activity of sleeping mice show that their brains flush out waste products twice as fast while they are sleeping as they do when awake.
- Eat a healthy diet heavy in fruits, vegetables, nuts, olive oil and lean meats and fish. There actually is a MIND diet shown to be protective of your brain, which combines the DASH diet good for your heart with a well-researched winner, the Mediterranean diet.
- Drink no more than 2 alcoholic drinks per day. Drinking in moderation has been shown to be good for your mental and physical health, but it’s essential to avoid the slippery slope of over-indulgence. We all know that excessive drinking leads to cognitive impairment in the short term, and many of us have felt its impact on the morning after. If heavy drinking continues over time, there are serious, long-term changes in your brain, including memory loss, difficulty concentrating, and other symptoms of dementia. Over-use of recreational and prescription drugs can have the same effect, causing long-term decline and symptoms of dementia.
- Don’t smoke. Smoking increases the risk of a wide variety of diseases by up to 80%, and what’s bad for your body is equally bad for your brain. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. Even a few years of smoking when you are young can change the way your genes express themselves in later life. If you do smoke, the sooner you quit, the better your chances of reversing at least some of the damage.
- Wear a helmet! Your brain has many amazing qualities, but impact resistance is not one of them. Wearing a helmet while riding a bike, skateboard, or motorcycle, or while skiing/boarding down a mountain reduces the risk of traumatic brain injury and death by 85%. Feeling the wind in your hair just isn’t worth it.
- Relax and have fun! Breathe deeply every day, learn how to meditate and then make it a habit. Relax and enjoy yourself, be mindful, be positive, be grateful for all the good in your life. Learn how to manage your stress. It matters a lot that you do this, because brain resiliency comes from engaging in both the challenges AND fun of life, and moving easily between them.
Featured photo credit: Man With Arms Up And Sunset Behind Island – Ed Gregory via stokpic.com