3 Healthy Lifestyle Choices That Improve Cognitive Energy (and Slow Aging)
Brain health is just as important as heart health and body health.
We know the importance of taking care of our bodies but overlook brain health.
I’m as guilty as anyone of focusing on body over brain… but why is that?
Why do we often exercise our muscles, but not our neurons?
Mental care-taking doesn’t come naturally, because we are not bombarded with brain-healthy media. We know we need to lower our cholesterol and exercise daily to stay healthy.
So, what are some ways we can increase brain power?
Research shows that specific lifestyles and actions improve the health and level of functioning in our brains. We are more in control than we think.
The good news is that promoting brain health fosters overall health.
It is common to lose some cognitive function as we age. Yet some people manage to stay mentally sharp into their advanced years.
Neurologist Marsel Mesulam coined the term “super-agers” for these individuals. Super-agers maintain the memory and attention of mid-20-year-olds into their 80s.
Scientists are still studying why some people mentally age significantly better than others. Their best answer so far: work hard at something.
Activity in critical brain regions increases when we perform difficult mental or physical tasks. This means vigorous exercise increases physical and mental health.
To challenge your brain mentally, you need to go beyond Sudoku and crossword puzzles. Tasks that improve mental ability tend to make you feel tired, stymied and frustrated because you are feeling the discomfort of exertion.
The result of pushing past the temporary unpleasantness of intense effort is a more youthful brain with sharper memory and greater ability to pay attention.
Work your brain by learning a new foreign language, taking an online course, training for a triathlon or mastering a musical instrument.
Although your brain is not a muscle, it behaves like one. It can be trained to improve different cognitive functions.
Working out your brain can actually coincide with working out the rest of your body. Physical exercise, especially aerobic exercise, has positive effects on brain function.
Even a brief 20-minute workout facilitates information processing and memory functions.
Exercise helps the brain in many ways. Increased heart rate pumps more oxygen to the brain. Hormones released while during strenuous workouts provide a nourishing environment for brain cell growth.
Growth factors in the brain increase making it easier for your brain the form new neuronal connections. Aerobic exercise is notorious for reducing stress hormones and acting as an antidepressant.
That is where “runner’s high” comes from. This high is also associated with cell growth in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory.
Combining physical exercise with mental exercise is the ultimate duo. Physical activity that requires both mental and physical demands has a high impact on cognitive function than either physical or mental tasks alone.
Look for workouts that incorporate coordination as well as cardiovascular exercise. Dance classes and biking are good examples of this; if you can work out outdoors, even better.
A healthy diet leads to better cognitive function along with making you feel better. The foods you eat play a critical role in fueling brain power.
Studies show that high intakes of uridine, together with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and folate improve your dopamine sensitivity, and thus motivation and general sense of well-being.
Nutrition scientists also say that vitamin B and E have been shown to slow age-related cognitive decline.
There are three main categories of brain healthy foods: omega-3 fatty acids, flavonoids and vitamin E.
Both flavonoids and vitamin contain antioxidants. These nutrients help shield the body from the destruction caused by free radicals.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids – As you age, your nerve cells shrink, blood supplies to the brain decline and you sometimes experience problem causing inflammation. Communication between cells becomes less smooth. Your brain cells need to be able to communicate quickly and easily with one another in order for your memory for function smoothly. Omega-3 fatty acids promote effective electrical signaling between cells, reduce inflammation, improve concentration and fight memory loss. The body needs to absorb omega-3 fatty acids from food sources. Fish are a great source of this nutrient. Although, try to avoid fish high in mercury or other heavy metals. Other brain protectors include eggs, walnuts, oils (flaxseed, chia seed, krill) and leafy greens (Brussel sprouts, kale, arugula, spinach, mint).
- Flavonoids – The antioxidants flavonoids are the main reason a healthy diet should include many colorful foods. Many fruits, vegetables and herbs contain these nutrients. They have been shown to increase the number of connections between neurons, disrupt the development of amyloid plaques and reduce inflammation. Studies have shown that eating large amounts of berries, which are high in flavonoids, delay memory decline associated with aging. The more colorful your produce intake, the higher the level of flavonoids. Some foods and drinks that contain these antioxidants include dark chocolate, leafy greens (spinach and kale), coffee, butternut squash, plums, avocados, strawberries, blueberries, cherries and red wine.
- Vitamin E – Another great free-radical fighter is vitamin E. One study showed that a type of vitamin E found in palm oil may protect the brain from developing white matter lesions. These lesions have been linked to stroke, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Foods high in this antioxidant include nuts and seeds (almonds, sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, peanut butter, pine nuts), leafy greens (dandelion greens, spinach, turnip greens, swiss chard) and oils (safflower, wheat germ, soybean, sunflower).
There are even some supplements on the market today that can increase brain power. They are used to improve focus, concentration, memory and motivation.
Nootropics, as many of you reading this site now know, are natural supplements that have similar effects to the prescription stimulant Adderall, but are often less harsh and have nearly the same effects.
Although nootropics are naturally occurring, everything in moderation. Add supplements to an already healthy diet, instead of in place of one. Your brain will thank you for it.
Your brain, like other organs and muscles in your body, needs to be treated well.
Living a healthy life full of challenges is a great way to improve brain power.
Getting in a daily exercise routine that challenges your coordination and increases heart rate is the surest way to strengthen your brain, both in youth and old age.
Eating lots of leafy greens and colorful fruits and veggies and healthy fats make you look and feel good as well as increase neuron growth and connections.
Challenge yourself with fun new courses and activities and enjoy the benefits of a healthy brain.