Similar to how our body loses muscle over time, our brains can suffer from atrophy, too. Your brain’s cognitive reserve (its ability to improvise and find alternate ways of getting a job done) diminishes as you age, which makes it more difficult to perform mental tasks. Researchers suggest that following a brain-healthy lifestyle and performing regular, targeted brain exercises can increase your brain’s cognitive reserve. There are several factors that contribute to boosting brain health.
What is a Brain Healthy Lifestyle?
It’s no secret that your lifestyle greatly impacts all aspects of your health. Traditional components that contribute to an individual’s overall health and well-being include healthy eating, physical activity, weight management, and stress management. These are all part of the 6 Pillars of Brain Health:
1. Physical Exercise. Exercise improves blood flow and memory, stimulating chemical changes in the brain that enhance learning, mood and thinking. Regular endurance exercise, like running, swimming or biking, can foster new brain cell growth and preserve existing brain cells. By conducting brain scans of older adults, researchers found that the most physically active people maintained their motor skills better than those who were sedentary, even despite signs of brain damage by age-related small vessel disease. Regular exercise has also been linked to a lowered risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
2. Food & Nutrition. The process of oxidation damages brains cells and occurs when your brain is exposed to harmful stressors due to your lifestyle and environment. (Imagine the browning of a half eaten apple to give you a visual image of the damage that oxidation can cause on your brain.) Food rich in antioxidants, like spinach, kale, broccoli, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, can help fend off the harmful effects of oxidation in your brain. Fish is an excellent source of omega-3, a fatty acid your body can’t produce, and is good for your brain. Not a fish lover? Try walnuts, flaxseeds or soybeans.
3. Medical Health. Pre-existing medical conditions like hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, high cholesterol, and smoking all increase the risk of dementia. Reducing the risks is within your control. Start by attending annual check-ups, following your doctor’s advice, and taking medications as prescribed.
4. Sleep & Relaxation. Few things are better for your mood, immune system and brain than a good night’s sleep. Sleep sharpens our brain and provides the energy we need to keep up with our busy lives. Sleep may also reduce buildup of beta-amyloid plaque in the brain, which is associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
5. Mental Fitness. Similar to your muscles, use it or you will lose it. Brain reserve develops in childhood and gets stronger as you learn through adulthood. Brain reserve helps your brain adapt and respond to changes and resist damage. Developing new skills, trying new activities, and participating in ongoing education helps to build and improve brain reserve. These mental exercises can also decrease your likelihood of developing dementia.
6. Social Interaction. Leading an active social life can protect you against memory loss. Studies have shown that those who engage in a socially interactive lifestyle experience the slowest rate of memory decline. Spend time with loved ones and engage in stimulating conversation to boost your brain health.
How To Improve Memory Recall
A desire to improve your memory is a common one. Thankfully, there are many ways to improve concentration and memory recall. If you’re trying to learn something new or increase your ability to recall information, try these tips:
*Chunking: Make it easier to remember several pieces of information by putting it together in chunks. Your brain can retain more information if you put numbers in smaller groups than if you think of each number as a separate piece of information. Think of how we remember and say our phone numbers: instead of 5551234567, we lump them together: 555-123-4567. Research shows that chunking information continues to be a very effective strategy, even during the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
*Mnemonic Devices: Acronyms are the most familiar type of mnemonic strategies and are used because they’re a great way to remember things. For example, when learning notes in piano lessons, some teachers use the mnemonic device “Every Good Boy Does Fine”. The first letter of each word, (E, G, B, D, F) is the note name for the lines of the treble clef.
*Repetition: Seems obvious, right? Being intentional about repeating something helps it become embedded in your short term memory.
*Write It Down: Remember when you were in school and you took notes to retain information? It was for good reason. The act of writing things down can help implant the memories into your brain, as well as serve as a reminder and a reference for you.
Exercises to Improve Memory and Concentration
Just like you exercise your body for physical health, the same notion can be applied to your mental health. Brain exercises are a great way to keep your mind active as you age. Thankfully, there’s no shortage of exercises to improve memory and concentration.
*Switch Hands. Use your non-dominant hand to brush your teeth, eat, and navigate your computer mouse. The challenge of this activity results in increased brain activity.
*Eat with Chopsticks. This trick causes you to be mindful of what you eat, which is good for your brain, digestion and calorie consumption. (Try using your non-dominant hand for added exercise.)
*Turn Off Technology. As a society, we’ve become so reliant on our smartphones that we’ve forgotten that our brains once did these jobs for us! Do math equations in your head or on paper, don’t use autocorrect when spelling, or turn of your GPS and use your innate sense of direction to get to a location you’ve previously been to.
*Go at it Backwards (or Upside Down). Stimulate your brain by looking at things upside down. For example, wear your watch upside down. This forces your brain to think and process the information every time you look at the time.
*Meditate. This is likely the most challenging, and therefore most beneficial, memory and concentration skill. Meditation works so much like physical exercise, it’s been called “push ups for the brain.” The brain benefits of meditation include improved memory, increased focus and attention, and even reversal of brain atrophy.
Your brain is the most important muscle in your body and deserves care and attention, too. Play brain games, get plenty of sleep, and exercise regularly to boost your brain health.