The human brain weighs approximately 3-4 pounds and represents about 2% of our total body mass. However, it is packed with hundred of billions of neurons and controls 100% of what we do! This single organ regulates bodily functions ranging from the rate at which our heart beats to how we digest our food. And In addition to keeping our bodily functions in check, our brain ultimately shapes our abstract thoughts, hopes, dreams, and imaginations. In short, our brain is what makes us human! And every waking minute (and even when we are not awake), our brains are working hard to regulate all of these process and functions. And like any hard working machine, it is important that we care for our brain by providing it with the essentials it needs to operate at its best.
When it comes to our brain health, there is no single magic bullet cure or treatment that is going to work to keep our brains in peak condition. Instead, we have learned that we need to take a holistic approach to our brain health by making lifestyle decisions that contribute to our brain health in different ways. There are five lifestyle decisions that we can make that represent the five pillars that support a healthy brain lifestyle.
The First Pillar of the Healthy Brain Lifestyle is Nutrition. Despite the fact our brains represent only ~2% of our total body weight, amazingly, our brain consumes ~20% of our daily energy intake! For this reason, it is essential that we start our day with a complete breakfast and make sure that simply get enough food to eat each day to keep our brains functioning optimally. In addition to energy, it is also important that we provide our brains with the necessary building blocks it needs to grow and thrive. For example, consuming a dietary source of Omega 3 fatty acids such as wild salmon or flax seed oil is important because our brain cells require this nutrient to build and repair brain cells. It is also important that we consume foods such as blueberries, dark chocolate and leafy green vegetables because they are a rich source of antioxidants that provide protection from oxidative stress that damages our brain cells.
The Second Pillar of the Healthy Brain Lifestyle is Physical Fitness. In addition to providing our brains with the essential nutrients it needs, it is critical that we keep our hearts and lungs healthy and strong so that we can pump all of the oxygen rich blood and nutrients to our brain. Study after study has shown that exercise results in improved performance on different cognitive tests as well as physiological changes in the structure of the brain.
The Third Pillar of the Healthy Brain Lifestyle is Socialization. New research has shown that Loneliness and social isolation are two of the most significant factors that put older adults at risk of suffering from dementia and/or Alzheimer’s disease. We have learned that the very act of being social is necessary to stimulate the brain in different ways to prevent it from becoming entrenched in monotonous routine. Our brains need to be stimulated through conversation, the sharing of ideas and the company of others. For this reason it is important that we all develop hobbies and find activities that we enjoy. All communities have clubs and organizations that seek membership. Find resources in your community that you can use to avoid isolation and social segregation.
The Fourth Pillar of the Healthy Brain Lifestyle is Stress Management. Yes, some acute stress in life is necessary as it is part of the human fight or flight response. But too much stress or chronic stress actually kills brain cells. Research has consistently shown that cortisol, the human stress hormone, damages and kills brain cells in the hippocampus (the brain area responsible for memory) and there is also robust evidence demonstrating that chronic stress causes premature brain aging. For this reason, it is essential that we all find ways to avoid and alleviate the stressors in our life–our brain health depends on it!
The Fifth Pillar of the Brain Health Lifestyle is Mental Stimulation. We all need to push our mental boundaries and seek out novel activities and challenge our brain in ways it has never been challenged before. It is also important that we avoid rote and passive behaviours that our brains can do while on ‘autopilot’. In addition to indirect evidence demonstrating that those who engage in intellectually stimulating challenges over the course of their lives have a reduced risk of suffering from dementia in later life, there is now direct evidence form the scientific community demonstrating that engaging in cognitive training exercises produces physiological changes in the brain that result in marked improvements in cognitive performance.
It is important that we take a proactive approach to our brain health and incorporate the five pillars of the healthy brain lifestyle into our lifestyles. By doing so we are not only taking the steps necessary to keep our brain in tip top shape, we are also taking the steps necessary to prevent age related cognitive decline and reduce our risk for many brain disorders including dementia and stroke.