Even though our brain is the most important and complex part of the body, we don’t often think of brain health. Our brain weighs about 3 pounds and is a combination of 40% water, protein, salt and carbohydrates, and 60% fat. The most simple explanation for how the brain works is that it sends and receives chemical and electrical signals throughout the body. Different signals control different processes, such as making you feel tired, hungry or in pain.
The brain regulates every process in the body including thinking, hunger, behavior, emotions, vision, decision making, memory, body movement and much more. It also contains blood vessels and nerves, including neurons and glial cells. Although technology is changing every day and our knowledge of many areas of the human body is improving, still the brain remains a mystery in so many ways.
Possibly the scariest thing that can happen to us is losing our memory and thinking abilities. The number of people affected by this is increasing, but it can be hard to know what we can do to improve our brain health. The first thing that comes in our mind is stimulating our brain with things like puzzles and playing games. These have been proven effective, however there are many other ways and importantly there are also screening and comprehensive standardized testing options available now too for preventing the onset or further damage of any brain condition.
Many brain functions do not change with age. Actually, the social cognition, vocabulary and verbal reasoning in older adults remains unchanged and can even improve during the aging process. But with aging some senses decline, especially vision. The brain’s processing speed decreases and it becomes harder to retrieve information rapidly. Multitasking decreases, and the ability to learn also declines. And if we reach a point where we start to need others for help, it can be concerning.
Dementia is not a normal part of the decline that comes with aging. It is an umbrella term that refers instead to the loss of the ability to remember, think or reason to the extent that it interferes with complex tasks in daily life such as keeping appointments or financial management. Dementia is a clinical syndrome caused by different diseases in the brain. If we notice the onset of it, either in ourselves or in others around us, of course we get very worried. Yes, as we age we may lose some functions that involve decision making, planning, multitasking and the speed in which we can respond. Some mild changes in cognition are considered a normal part of the aging process. However, the declines seen in dementia are more severe and may include other thinking abilities such as rapidly forgetting or difficulties navigating, solving common problems, or expressing ourself in conversation. Symptoms are often quite different for each individual.
Some of the risk factors for cognitive decline include type 2 diabetes, obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, high blood pressure, smoking and mental health problems such as depression. But the good news here is that all of these risk factors are modifiable. However, if they are left untreated or treated badly then the effects accumulate over time and the symptoms of dementia appear.
There are some key strategies for keeping our brain healthy. The importance of nutrition for the brain is huge. We need a balanced diet rich in antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins and there are some specific foods known to boost brain health, such as berries, nuts, and fatty fish. And it’s important too to keep blood sugar levels stable during the day.
Establishing a physical exercise routine with a mix of cardio, strength training, and balance exercises is crucial. There are many easy-to-follow exercise programs that are suitable for different fitness levels, with certain types of exercises specifically recommended for older adults.
Mental stimulation plays an important role. Learning new skills and hobbies, and setting goals for what we want to learn or achieve, can help keep the brain active.
Social engagement also has many proven benefits on cognitive health.
And if needed, strategies for managing stress and maintaining mental wellbeing such as meditation, breath work and yoga can have a big impact on brain health.
And we must not forget that we need quality sleep. There is a strong relationship between sleep and brain health, and creating a nightly routine to enhance sleep quality can have a big impact.
National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Brain Basics: Know Your Brain. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/health-information/public-education/brain-basics/brain-basics-know-your-brain
Johns Hopkins Medicine. Brain Anatomy and How the Brain Works. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/anatomy-of-the-brain
National Library of Medicine. The Impact of Age on Cognition. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4906299/
UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences. Healthy Aging. https://memory.ucsf.edu/symptoms/healthy-aging