Like our physical body, our minds also change over time. Therefore, it makes sense to train the brain so it can stay at the top of its game, too. The term brain “plasticity” refers to the incredible ability of the brain to adapt and change.
Think of plasticity as flexibility: the greater the plasticity of the brain, the better it can absorb, retain and utilize information. The less plastic the brain is, the slower it processes, which can lead to a loss of brain matter and function. Continuing to form new connections is vital in brain health and optimizes brain plasticity. More good news: plasticity can be improved at any age. Here are some simple steps and activities you can do now to delay aging and keep your mind sharp.
Adding curry to recipes and menu choices not only adds a kick to foods, the turmeric component found in curry is well known for its anti-inflammatory properties, which is reason enough to add more of it to your diet. New studies show it may also be key in supporting your immune system by boosting the work of macrophages. Macrophages act like tiny garbage trucks in the body, picking up foreign proteins. Recent studies associated with Alzheimer’s disease showed turmeric decreased the production of beta amyloid proteins and the ingestion of amyloid plaques. Increased amyloid proteins and plaques in the brain are significant indicators of the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s.
Increasing your intake of vegetables along with fresh fruits is also an essential piece in keeping your brain sharp and fit. The high level of antioxidants in both fruits and vegetables can help reduce inflammation, offset oxidative stress and enhance cognitive and motor function. Remember to choose a rainbow of colors in your vegetables and fruits to ensure you are getting a variety of antioxidants and select organic varieties wherever possible.
While burning the midnight oil may help you get caught up on work or those episodes of Scandal, its not doing much for your precious brain connections. Getting a good night’s sleep, between six and nine hours, is essential for cognition, recall and verbal fluency.
The brain works ten times as hard removing toxins while you sleep—clearing out those nasty plaques, or “cobwebs,” as they are often referred to. Trying to catch up on sleep on the weekends isn’t really an option either, as sleeping over nine hours in a clip can be as detrimental as not getting enough sleep.
To improve your sleep patterns, try to keep a consistent time for bed along with a bedtime ritual. Start winding down at least an hour before bedtime, dimming lights and moving away from digital screens. Preparing a cup of herbal tea, listening to soothing music or reading a printed book can help create a bedtime ritual that is helpful in getting your body and mind ready for quality sleep.
Physical exercise is one of the most important components in keeping a vibrant and healthy brain. The benefits of exercise go well beyond cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure and stress reduction. Regular movement and muscle utility increase the levels of oxygen that gets to the brain. It can also increase the development of new nerve cells and their connections. The result is a more adaptive, efficient, better performing brain. If that isn’t enough motivation, studies have shown that regular exercise of just 30 to 45 minutes, three times a week, increases volume in the area of the brain associated with memory.
Adding meditation to your day can give your brain a positive boost in more ways than one. Meditation is a powerful tool in lowering stress levels. When you are stressed, your body produces what is known as the stress hormone, cortisol. Over time cortisol acts like a short circuit on our neural connections, or synapses. Damaging these connections specifically impacts memory storage, including short-term memory and processing.
Meditation is also proving to have a positive effect on attention, cognitive function and may even create physical changes in the brain. Some promising studies show meditation can help you “re-wire” your brain for increased efficiency as evidenced through actual changes in the gray and white matter of the brain.
Meditating for as little as ten minutes a day can have a positive impact on stress, sleep and inflammation. Setting aside this small amount of time each day is well worth the benefits.
The brain’s ability to adapt, change and remain sharp is achievable as long as it is continually challenged. One of the keys to brain plasticity is being challenged in new ways. While you may think you are being challenged every day on your job or in your career, most often the activities you do are not new challenges, but adaptations of skills already learned. As a result, your brain function can become stagnant or even falter, but don’t fret. Think outside the box and find things you have never done before to truly challenge your brain in new ways. This helps create new neural connections, which is key in improving plasticity. Activities like learning a new language, learning to dance, learning a new sport or picking up a new instrument encourages these changes.
Brain games like Lumosity and BrainHQ have studies supporting their effectiveness, but keeping your brain fit should not be limited to these games to optimize your brain health. Think outside your brain’s box.
As human beings, we are social creatures by nature, thriving emotionally and physically when we are in a community. As such, keeping engaged and involved in social connections and activities is vital to brain health. Evolutionary science has put forth strong evidence that the size of a species’ brain is directly related to the size of its social group. The human brain is disproportionately large for the size of its body indicating we are hardwired to be social beings.
Our emotional health greatly improves with meaningful interactions and connections. Those with strong and active social connections tend to have lower anxiety, lower risk of depression and have a greater sense of satisfaction and overall happiness.
Studies of people who were socially engaged versus those with low social activity have shown as much as a 70 percent deferential in brain cognition. Though it is often tempting to wind down in front of the iPad or flat screen, getting out with friends, volunteering and being involved in the community is far more important for long-term physical and mental health.
While there has been much emphasis on keeping our fat intakes low, new research shows this may be counterproductive when it comes to the health of our brains. There are two types of fuels that the brain can use for energy. One type of energy is glucose and the other is ketones, which are the energy source derived from fats. Recent evidence suggests that when the brain is using ketones, it may actually be restoring and renewing its neurons and function.
Research from the Mayo Clinic showed an 89 percent increased risk for developing dementia in those with higher carbohydrate diet versus those with higher fat diets. The quality of these fats is essential, however. Coconut oil, omega 3s from sources such as wild-caught fish and grass-fed meats, top the “good fats” list.
Reducing reliance on carbohydrates as a primary energy source and episodes of intermittent fasting or overall reduced caloric intake can have a significant beneficial impact on mental health and longevity.
Addressing issues with your diet, level of physical activity, amount of social interaction and introducing new mental challenges can go a long way in keeping your brain sharp for the long haul.