Memory loss and cognitive decline is a battle most people face as they age. But is this really part of the "normal" aging process? Not necessarily.
Current research is revealing that what we believed to be degenerative changes in the brain associated with the normal aging process could actually be the result of years of unresolved chronic inflammation in the brain.
This means that, at any age, when routine tasks seem more difficult and moments of confusion occur more often, symptoms of neurodegeneration of the brain due to inflammation need to be considered.
How inflammation affects your brain health:
The responsibility of collecting and removing pathogens and debris from our brain falls to the microglia, the innate immune cells in our brains. They do this by initiating a temporary inflammatory response to attack "invaders," consuming the foreign substance, and then returning to their normal resting state when the danger has been removed.
However, when the body has suffered too many assaults (for example, through infection, physical or mental trauma, chronic stress, poor dietary habits, exposure to toxins, and so on), the microglia are unable to downregulate and they remain in attack mode. The result of this is a chronic, wildfire-like inflammation in the brain. Furthermore, as we get older, and the microglia have a longer history of activation, they move into a more inflammatory state as their resting state. This heightened inflammatory state, over time, eventually damages neurons and can affect cognitive functioning and memory.
But there is good news! Our brains are resilient, and when given the opportunity, the degenerative effects of chronic inflammation can be reduced—or even reversed—with certain lifestyle changes.
So, what can you do to reduce inflammation and help improve memory and cognitive performance? Here are three habits I recommend to maintain a better brain:
1. Get regular aerobic exercise.
Simply put, aerobic exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which helps your brain create new neurons and improve neural connections. A 2013 study by the University of Maryland School of Public Health found that people who increased their heart rate with daily moderate exercise "improved their memory performance and showed enhanced neural efficiency while engaged in memory retrieval tasks." Regular exercise also downregulates microglia in the brain.
Try to incorporate just 30 minutes a day of moderate physical exercise—such as walking—for a significant impact on your brain health.
2. Eat for brain health.
Diet also plays an important role in brain health, and there's an impressive amount of research confirming that essential fatty acids, like omega-3s, are very beneficial. If DHA levels are low (DHA is a form of omega-3) the brain is more susceptible to degeneration. Omega-3 fatty acids also help scavenge free radicals that attach inappropriately to tissue and damage it.
Since our bodies are unable to produce these fatty acids on their own, we need to make sure that foods rich in omega-3s like salmon, shrimp, sardines, eggs, walnuts, and almonds make a regular appearance on our plates.
Fruits and vegetables, high in a type of antioxidant called flavonoid, also play a major role in brain health. Foods rich in flavonoids offer a number of neuroprotective properties and can decrease rates of cognitive decline and potentially slow the progression of many neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease. Foods rich in flavonoids include tea (black, green, oolong), bananas, colorful berries, onions, apples, citrus, ginkgo biloba, parsley, red wine, and chocolate.
3. Meditate every day.
Meditation is neuro-regenerative. A study conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital found that mindfulness meditation, over the short period of only eight weeks, increased the amount of gray matter in regions of the brain involved in learning and memory, regulation of one's emotions, and self-awareness.