“Iron rusts from disuse; stagnant water loses its purity and in cold weather becomes frozen; even so does inaction soften the vigor of the brain.” Leonardo da Vinci was on the right path when he wrote about what happens to our brain if we don’t use it. Ongoing research is showing that a healthy brain makes us feel better and can keep problems, such as dementia, at bay.
When living with a chronic disease, medications, stress, to say nothing of the disease itself and/or age, can contribute to how effective, or ineffective the brain functions. Since changing the brain changes how we feel, it’s important to take care of those 100 billion cells, most of which are neurons.
Neurons are like a light switch; they can be in a resting state (off) or shooting electrical impulse (on) down a wire. Each of the billions of neurons “spit out” chemicals that trigger other neurons. Different neurons use different types of chemicals. Neurons do not act alone; rather they are connected to many other neurons.
The brain is a complex beast to put it mildly. Maybe the easiest way to understand it is to think of your brain like an orchestra. If everyone shows up, is in tune and playing together, you get beautiful music. However, if someone is late in the cello section, the cymbals player isn’t paying attention, the flutist is eyeing the cute French horn player, not the conductor, and the first violinist has a raging cold, it wont be long before the “sweet music” turns quite sour.
The old theory was that you were born with so many neurons and as you aged, had an injury etc., they died never to be replaced. It was also believed that neural pathways once destroyed could never be repaired. However, recent research shows that the brain has a lifelong ability to reorganize new neural pathways based on new experiences. For example, in response to a brain injury, the brain can form new connections to compensate for lost function and/or to maximize remaining functions in the brain. Parts of the brain are also generating new neurons all the time to help with those connections.
Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and Co-Director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center, has come up with a “Healthy Mind Platter” to correspond with the “Choose my plate” strategy. The latter replaced the food pyramid for healthy eating by US Dept. of Agriculture. Siegel suggests seven mental activities to optimize brain and create well being.
Focus Time: When we closely focus on tasks in a goal-oriented way, we take on challenges that make deep connections in the brain.
Play Time: When we allow ourselves to be spontaneous or creative, playfully enjoying novel experiences, we help make new connections in the brain.
Connecting Time: When we connect with other people, ideally in person, and when we take time to appreciate our connection to the natural world around us, we activate and reinforce the brain's relational circuitry.
Physical Time: When we move our bodies, aerobically if medically possible, we strengthen the brain in many ways.
Time In: When we quietly reflect internally, focusing on sensations, images, feelings and thoughts, we help to better integrate the brain.
Down Time: When we are non-focused, without any specific goal, and let our mind wander or simply relax, we help the brain recharge.
Sleep Time: When we give the brain the rest it needs, we consolidate learning and recover from the experiences of the day.
If it’s good for your heart, it’s probably good for your brain. According to the Alzheimer’s Foundation, Many experts believe that controlling cardiovascular risk factors may be the most cost-effective and helpful approach to protecting brain health. Therefore, in addition to Siegel’s seven strategies, which include those heart healthy favorites of stress reduction and exercise, incorporate heart healthy foods.
According to WebMd, research is showing that you can increase your chances of maintaining a healthy brain well into your old age if you add these "smart" foods to your daily eating regimen. Blueberries; wild salmon; nuts and seeds (walnuts, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, filberts, almonds, cashews, peanuts, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, flax seed, and unhydrogenated nut butters such as peanut butter, almond butter, and tahini); avocados; whole grains; beans; pomegranate juice; freshly brewed tea and dark chocolate.
Another important strategy is protecting the brain from injury. Wear a helmet when engaging in sports such as skiing, snowboarding, cycling, motorcycle riding etc.; avoid falls; and wear a seat belt in the car.
In the May issue of the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, a study found that in 926 people, 70 years of age or older, those who engaged in moderate levels of exercise, like brisk walking, yoga, aerobics, or tennis, along with regular computer use, reduced the odds of developing mild cognitive impairment. Engaging the brain in “mental aerobics” most likely engages neurons that physical exercise doesn’t touch.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Mental decline as you age appears to be largely due to altered connections among brain cells. But research has found that keeping the brain active seems to increase its vitality and may build its reserves of brain cells and connections. You could even generate new brain cells.
Activities such as reading, learning a second language or something new, cross word or other types of puzzles, playing games etc. can all help with mental stimulation. For fun and brain exercise, check out AARP's free game website.