Our brains are a truly remarkable organ. From our thoughts and feelings, to how we choose our favorite food, and even our sense of humor, our brains shape who we are. Being so complex, it’s easy to think of the brain as an obscure mystery. But scientific discoveries – over the past two decades especially – have helped us gain a bit more insight behind that mystery.
We’ve learned more about the human brain in the past 20 years than in the history of humankind. While this is great news for all of us, society’s commonly held beliefs aren’t always as quick to evolve. Many of us are holding onto misconceptions about the brain without even knowing it.
- Major declines in memory are just a part of aging Our brains have the incredible capacity to not only alter the strength of connections between neurons but also to create entirely new neuronal pathways during our lifetimes. Scientists call this “neuroplasticity,” and it’s the basis for how we acquire new skills and talents. With coaching and the proper cues, the brain’s wiring can be adjusted to function better — resulting in a sharper memory, improved focus, better sleep, less anxiety, and a more stable mood.
- Brain size doesn’t matter Many people might not know that our brains can actually shrink – and losing brain volume isn’t a good thing. After age 40, the memory parts of our brains (the hippocampus and cortex) may shrink by an estimated 0.5% every year. This type of “normal” brain aging may cause you to have some slight difficulties recalling a word now and then, but it shouldn’t cause disruptive or worsening memory problems. Conversely, people who experience disabling cognitive decline likely were exposed to negative risk factors during middle age, causing accelerated shrinkage of their hippocampus and cortex by old age. The good news is, we now know that we can grow our brains at any age.
- Exercising just benefits your body Research shows exercise is one of the best generators of new hippocampal neurons. Increasing your level of physical fitness has been shown to help boost your memory and grow your brain. Simply walking can do wonders for growing your brain and decreasing your risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease, according to a large body of research. It’s been demonstrated that the more physically active you are, the bigger your hippocampus can get. One study showed that participants who increased physical activity like walking, dancing, or gardening reduced their risk of Alzheimer’s disease by up to 50%.
- Sleep and memory are unrelated Recent studies have shown that insomnia can have significant effects on your brain. The worse your insomnia, the more shrinkage your hippocampus could experience. In fact, research has suggested that the longer a person suffers from insomnia (e.g., 20 years of chronic insomnia versus occasional insomnia), the smaller his or her hippocampus can be. Lack of adequate sleep also increases your cortisol levels, upping your risk of heart attacks, hypertension, and blood clots.
Dispelling the myths and taking a proactive approach to brain health could ultimately result in improved memory and sharper recall.
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IOS Press. (2016, March 11). Different kinds of physical activity shown to improve brain volume, cut Alzheimer’s risk in half. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 26, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/03/160311084108.htm
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