Our brains are more adaptive than we ever imagined. Neuroplasticity describes the amazing ability of our brains to reorganize and adapt itself to form new neural connections throughout life in response to interactions with our environment. The brain is not hard-wired as once imagined, but rather a complex dynamic network that is both adaptive and malleable and can be “re-wired” by signals driven by our thoughts, body and environment.
The ability to rewire and even regenerate new neural connections indicates that there is a powerful role that our lifestyle and life choices can make in shaping our brain performance and its resilience to the deleterious effects of stress, disease and aging. The power to age well is within our reach and with a precise plan that targets our unique risks and susceptibilities -we can indeed build a better brain. From our thoughts to our actions, here is an 8-step plan to get started.
- Challenge your Brain Daily!
If you don’t use it, you risk losing it! Between the ages of 60 to 70 years, women who continued to work had 40% less risk of memory problems than those who never worked. By challenging your brain often with novel and engaging activities, you can improve focus, concentration and recall while buffering against the risks of dementia. Learning to play a musical instrument, speak a new language or taking on a new hobby can provide the mental stimulation to boost brain vitality.
- Build a Healthstyle for your Brain!
It takes 30 days to entrench a new habit and can take even longer to break old ones. But- swapping healthy lifestyle habits such as a daily night time walk for the less healthy ones- such as a nightly glass of wine or late night sugary snack, can have an enormously favourable impact on your health. Persistence even in the face of adversity can be the key to break through the barrier to positive change.
- Practice Positivity and Action-oriented Thinking
Optimism works like a buffer to protect the brain from stress. On the other hand, ruminating, negativity and self-doubt can actually kill neurons and prevent the creation of new ones. A morning ritual of inscribing in a gratitude journal can stimulate positive thinking. When optimism becomes automatic and habitual, the brain is more likely to be ready to plan. Planning and action-oriented thinking is an effective brain building habit. When the brain thinks about an activity, the learning and neural networking that occurs nearly matches the mental memory laid down by actually performing the action. As the Canadian psychiatrist, scientist, and acclaimed author of “The Brain that Changes Itself”, Dr. Norman Doidge, has said; “imaging an act engages the same motor and sensory programs that are involved in doing it.”
- Keep your Body active
Sitting is the new smoking. In addition to the many physical benefits of exercise, being active is critical to mental and cognitive health. Exercise has been shown to increase production of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that signals growth and differentiation of nerve cells and synapses as well as promoting survival. BDNF is essential for learning, memory, recovery from injury and protects from aging and senescence. Exercise-triggered increase in BDNF has been associated with improved concentration and memory as well as reduced risk of anxiety, depression and dementia. Outdoor activity like a brisk nature walk may boost memory and mood while also reducing stress.
- Superfoods for a Better Brain
A nutrient enriched diet high in healthy fats may improve mood, memory and brain performance. The omega 3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) earns top rating as a brain superfood. DHA is found in the flesh of cold-water fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel, cod liver and tuna. Populations with shore-based diets and increased dietary intake of DHA have been shown to have lower rates of depression and better memory. Other brain super-nutrients include the anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients found in blueberries (anthocyanins), broccoli (vitamin K), turmeric, pumpkin seeds (zinc), dark chocolate (flavonoids), green tea (L-theanine, polyphenols), and coffee (caffeine and anti-oxidants).
- Sleep Soundly
A good night’s sleep is vital to brain health. During sleep the brain actively reorganizes and recovers from daytime tasks. Key brain activities during sleep include the cementing of memories and new knowledge while flushing away accumulated metabolic waste (like beta-amyloid the hallmark protein of Alzheimer’s). While the ideal sleep duration is about 7.5 hours –there may be night to night and individual variation. Research has shown that even small reductions in sleep duration can have deleterious effects. After 2 weeks of sleeping 6 hours nightly the impairment in memory and reaction time is similar to having not slept at all. Sleep disturbance often proceeds, and is now considered causally linked to, the diagnosis of depression, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s Disease and is commonly seen following traumatic brain injury. So sleepy time is critical for not only the body but for the brain as well.
- Buffer Stress
Stress serves as a common denominator in aging the brain and body. The toll of sleeplessness and depression on the brain is similar to that of chronic stress; with shrinkage in the key areas of the brain; the hippocampus, amygdala and prefrontal cortex responsible for memory, learning and biofeedback. While what doesn’t kill us may make us stronger, when stress is too intense and too chronic in nature- the impact on brain health and performance can be extreme. In fact, stress induced changes in neural networks can be transmitted to future generations through the transgenerational effects of epigenetics. Although stressful situations cannot always be avoided, we can indeed become more adept at implementing stress reducing techniques such as the practice of meditation, deep breathing, tai chi and yoga. Neurobiofeedback devices can facilitate these practices by improving self-monitoring.
- Boost your Social Network
Spending time in the company of friends can be good for your brain. Social interactions have been shown to boost mood and memory. On the contrary, social isolation is an important risk factor for dementia in older adults. So cherish your friends as they are another key to your brain vitality!
The power to build a better brain is within your reach. Harness the science of neuroplasticity to shape a healthstyle and daily habits that will help you boost your brain vitality.
Dr. Jennifer Pearlman, MD CCFP NCMP FAARM ABAARM
Dr. Pearlman is a Women’s health, hormones, and aging expert and Medical Director of Pearl MD Rejuvenation, a state-of-the-art Women’s health and wellness facility in Toronto. To learn more, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.