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Hello Brain • Brain Health
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Adapt your lifestyle to protect your brain

Adapt your lifestyle to protect your brain

Good brain choices:  We don’t have to sit and hope our brain will stay healthy as we age. There are life-choices we can make that will help us strengthen our brains and remain vigorous.

Be nice to your brain: The rule of unavoidable memory loss as we age has had to been rewritten.  This harks back to a time when Alzheimer’s disease was impossible to diagnose in patients and so the condition was assumed to be a normal part of aging. Today we know that the adult brain need not suffer such losses. We also recognise that lifestyle choices have a hefty say in brain health.  

Why Brain Health Matters


Scientists have totted up activities that can leave our brain open to teetering with memory loss or general cognitive decline. Consuming too much alcohol, binge drinking, smoking and head trauma all count as risk factors. But it is not all about avoiding such brain baddies; you can take steps to invigorate your brain that you will enjoy. Step out and socialise more, put your brain through the mill by mentally challenging yourself, explore new experiences or places or become more physically active. Even small increases can bear fruit and encourage your brain to grow more cells and connections. And a healthy diet is yet another enjoyable way to boost brain reserves. 

Shopping for your brain: The brain benefits from a healthy heart. In fact neurocardiovascular functioning is related to a reduced risk of cognitive impairment and conversion to dementia. Like the heart, the brain benefits from a diet low in saturated fats and high in brightly coloured fruits and green vegetables. And eating more oily fish lubricates our brain; these are rich in a type of fat called omega-3 which appears to dampen down inflammation in the brain while bumping up the birth of new brain cells. Studies uncovered a reduced risk of dementia in those who ate fish once a week or more compared to those who avoided fish. You can read about one such study here. Interestingly, one particular type of omega-3 makes up more than half of all fatty acids in the membranes of brain cells. 

Rather than go on a healthy brain shop and pile these items in your basket, you could take a big picture approach and keep your brain in good trim by adopting a Mediterranean-style diet. Studies suggest this can reduce your chances of cognitive decline or getting Alzheimer’s disease. Also, on a scale of 0 to 9 measuring how well you stick to a Med diet, Alzheimer's patients with middle and high scores had lower risk of dying that Alzheimer's patients on the lower end of the scale. The Mediterranean diet includes high consumption of fruit, veg, beans and peas and complex carbs, with moderate amounts of fish. It also means taking olive oil as a main source of fat and drinking a small glass of red wine during dinner.

Your brain enjoys nothing more than breathing in plenty of oxygen as you exercise, but to redeem the benefits of all that movement you need a good supply of iron running through your veins. This means topping up on foods such as green leafy vegetables like spinach, fortified cereal, dried fruit and pulses like baked beans.

Remember, studies have not identified individual nutrients as outstanding soloist performers in brain health. It is better to tap to the beat of an orchestra of nutrients from a medley of food types.  

How does your memory work?

Several parts of your brain work together to register and build memories. You can give this memory network a hand with some simple tricks and a healthy lifestyle.

Sleep – an elixir for your mind: At one time or another, we have all gone without sleep and felt the groggy aftereffects the next day. We felt physically rotten, but our brain certainly wasn’t pleased. Without enough sleep, we may respond slowly to new situations or fail to pay proper attention – for example, when driving a car.

The human brain requires restful sleep to run smoothly and sleep can even boost our powers of recall. This is because a sound slumber allows your brain to process all the information it has sucked up during the day. 

Our brain doesn’t rest while we sleep. Instead memories are sorted and baked solid into brain circuits. The advice for brain health and sleep is straightforward. Try to prepare yourself for bed by unwinding mentally first, avoid using or looking at computer screens or mobile phone screens as the subtle blue light seems to poke the brain into life rather than calm it.  Eat light meals early in the evening, rather than feasting late into the night, and try to lay off coffee, tea or other caffeinated drinks.

The absentmindedness and disorientation a lack of sleep causes lets us all know our brain is not happy with its daily cup of rest. Scientists say sleep seems to protect new memories from disruption by interfering with experiences that happen while we go about our lives. As we sleep our brain builds memories depending on their importance and the learner’s expectation for remembering. Studies have found that sleep helps memory formation the most if you know you will need the information later. So we seem to put a sticky note – “keep these ones!” – on our most important memories, which our brain reads while we sleep.

Sleep imprints your memories like a pattern etched in wet concrete, making them harder to rub out. In one study in Germany, scientists asked people to remember picture cards. Half then took a nap. The two groups then had these memories disrupted by being asked to remember a different set of cards. Those who had taken a nap held onto the first set of memories far better. 

Although much research has been done on sleep, for scientists it remains one of the great mysteries. What they do know is that you sleep to remember and our brain thrives on its time off. If that wasn’t enough, growing evidence suggests that a lack of sleep increases the risk of a variety of health problems, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and heart attacks, stroke, depression, high blood pressure, obesity, and infections.

You choose: Our brain will be banged about or pampered by the choices we make each day. The good stuff that our brain likes includes physical activity, proper sleep, a good diet and new experiences. The bad stuff includes lack of sleep, not managing stress, not mixing with people and not challenging ourselves with new information or activities. A lot of these behaviours rely on decisions we make.  We might well look back in fondness at younger, wilder days, when so much was new. We might think we have tasted so much and are satisfied with our lot. Throw away such thoughts; avoiding new experiences is bad for the health of your brain.

Changing roles and responsibilities happen as we age and can influence the way we think, but we need to guard against stereotypes of ageing so that we don’t change our behaviour and zest for novelty. Negative ideas of old age are deep rooted in society, but we need to kick those down. Thinking young can help you avoid harmful, aged stereotypes and stop you thinking yourself old and therefore behaving old. Such ideas have direct negative consequences for your brain. Challenge and stimulate yourself each day and you will feel younger, you will act younger and you will keep your brain younger. Go dancing or join a club or meet new people or read pages in the newspaper that you normally skip over. Your brain’s circuits will buzz with more new memories and be in better health. Illustration: Healthy brain

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