The brain is like an extraordinary, wonderful, personal computer. Most of us though, simply take it for granted until something goes wrong. Scientists once thought that our wiring was fixed and if damaged could not be repaired. However researchers have discovered that our brain is pliable. So we can strengthen and develop it throughout our life.
Dr Gary Small, director of the Memory and Aging Research Center, Los Angeles says “We have more control than we think.” Factors such as diet, exercise and stress management have a major impact. The best way to maintain a good working memory is to be proactive.
The Brain Advantage of Exercise
Eastern philosophy has long held the belief that physical activity promotes a strong, flexible mind. Over the last decade or so western researchers have caught up with the idea and have been conducting clinical trials to examine the effects of aerobic exercise on cognitive function. They found that being physically fit as you age improves your mental capacity. Also, aerobic exercise can help restore neural and cognitive losses that occur with normal aging. (Kramer et al., 1999; Colcombe et al., 2004, 2006)
Neuroscientist Dr Wendy Suzuki, at the Center for Neural Science at New York University, has also found that exercise can reverse the inevitable shrinking of the hippocampus that comes with age. The hippocampus is essential for us to be able to form new long-term memories and for growing new brain cells. Suzuki also says that “meditation can change certain anatomical structures of the brain and attention can be improved.” Her recommendation is to combine aerobic activity with positive affirmations during the same workout.
Stress Impact on Brain Health
Chronic stress can take a heavy toll on the brain. The natural chemicals produced when we’re stressed not only contribute to a general environment of inflammation, they also attack the hippocampus, shrinking this important area.
Fortunately, how you deal with stress may be more important than the amount of stress you’re shouldering, says Dr Thomas Perls, coauthor of Living to 100. It’s evident that people can thrive and develop with a certain amount of stress so Perls believes the key to staying healthy is to not internalize it. “Stress is most damaging if you let it eat away at you” he says. It’s important to find a way to let go and deal with it effectively even if you just stop for a few minutes and take a few deep breaths. The techniques of mindfulness and reframing can also help you find a new perspective.
Brain Fueling with the Good Oils
Without enough healthy fats memory and learning suffer. In an April 2007 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study, researchers monitored the diets of 2,251 people for nearly 10 years and discovered that those who ate the least good fat were most likely to experience a loss of “verbal fluency,” a marker of brain health. When it comes to good fat, it’s OK to indulge, says Dr David Perlmutter, president of the Perlmutter Health Centre and author of Power Up Your Brain.
Perlmutter recommends looking to the Mediterranean diet (rich in vegetables, seafood and olive oil) for inspiration. “Too much fat is better than too little, and nothing is worse for the brain than a fat-free diet.”
A word of caution, however; over heated or processed fats (trans fats) are damaging to cells causing inflammation and a sluggish brain. Try to avoid deep fried foods and cooking with oils other than those with a high smoke point such as avocado, ghee, rice bran or coconut.