10 Ways To Maintain Brain Health As You Age + Why It Matters
As we get older, even if we are healthy, all of our organs undergo changes with each passing decade. And our brains are no exception. Age-related changes to the brain are not necessarily indicative of disease or degeneration, though. They can also be due to lifestyle factors.
When we suffer from chronic exposures, stress, and unhealthy living, brain cells can swell and become damaged. The mitochondria of the cells can become dysfunctional, and the strength and density of connections may be less than optimal. What's more, inflammation can influence epigenetic changes and genetic expression, ultimately changing the brain environment into an inhospitable one.
Why the brain ages
The weight of the brain increases from birth through young adulthood, and then slowly starts to decrease as we age. This loss of "brain weight" often affects areas that are involved in how we think, feel, speak, remember, learn, and interact. While brain cells cannot necessarily "self-renew" (as other cells can), they can strengthen their connections with neighboring cells, which improves function.
But aging itself can compromise this ability. This is because as we age, we are less resilient and we have less reserve to counteract sources of inflammation. As we age, we have less blood flow to the brain, greater exposure of the brain to toxins and pathogens, increased free radical damage to the brain cells, and an increase in damaging compounds from poor cellular function, which is not as easily eliminated. Additionally, our sleep becomes less restorative, which contributes to less repair and rejuvenation of the brain.
Why you need to start taking care of your brain now.
There are no longer clear lines between the health of our brain and our biological age. In the past, brain health was a concern of the elderly, but now, we are seeing a trend of neurodegenerative disease in younger adults. There has even been a rise in strokes, and risk factors for strokes, in those in their 30s.
If there is ever a time to get started on nourishing and caring for your brain, it is now.
But how? With healthy living and an anti-inflammatory lifestyle, we can maintain robust neuron density.
10 ways to take care of your brain now:
Practice sleep and wake hygiene.
The brain is a circadian organ and thrives on routine and rhythm, and a critical part of that rhythm is the sleep-wake cycle. In addition, the glymphatic system of our brain is most active during sleep and helps rid the brain of cellular debris and metabolic waste byproducts.
Improve your nutrition.
The science is clear. A healthy diet is crucial for brain health. Plant-based foods contain all the compounds necessary for healthy cellular function, so pile on the veggies.
Eat whole grains.
The brain prefers the glucose molecule for energy. This glucose is not meant to come in the form of doughnuts and cookies but rather whole grains. Our bodies have intricate biochemical mechanisms to break down whole grains to deliver to the brain the glucose it so craves in the appropriate amounts at the appropriate pace. Don't starve your brain.
Move and sweat each day.
A daily form of exercise, whether it be yoga, running, walking, cycling, or something else, can help improve blood flow to the brain and maintain the tight junctions of the blood-brain barrier.
Find a way to manage your stress. Journal, talk to a friend, breathing exercises, seek psychotherapy, go for a walk, or whatever works for you. The stress response, especially when chronic, can create neuroinflammation from the surge of stress hormones.
Heal your gut.
We know more today about the gut-brain connection than ever before, and there is no longer any doubt that the health of our gut plays a role.
Avoid long-term use of medications.
Some medications are necessary, some are not, some do more harm than good. Multiple medications, referred to as polypharmacy, may do more harm than good.
Eat organic foods, use green cleaning and personal care products, get out in nature and take deep breaths, and filter your water. Our world gets dirtier with each passing decade, so do what you can to protect your brain.
Learn something new every month.
That's not so hard. Even if it's reading a book. But consider learning a language, taking up a new sport, or learning how to play an instrument.
Be kind to yourself and to others.
Simple acts of kindness are emerging as a crucial aspect of our health and well-being.
We have but one beautiful brain that helps us to be who we are at our core. Protect it, nourish it, and care for it.
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Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D., is a board-certified neurologist practicing integrative pediatric and adult neurology in Seattle. She is the owner and founder of the Center for Healing Neurology and is on the faculty of Seattle Children’s Hospital. Her holistic approach includes full neurological care with the addition of acupuncture, neurofeedback, and herbal and nutritional guidance. She received her M.D. from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and completed her neurology training at the University of Washington in Seattle. In addition to becoming a certified medical acupuncturist, she has also completed the Integrative Medicine Fellowship at the University of Arizona. Her Ph.D. doctoral dissertation studied the effects of environmental toxins on our nation’s water systems.