If you’ve ever walked into a room and forgot why you went in there or noticed that your keys are never why you thought you left them, you may have chalked it up to aging and gone about your day.
For decades, we’ve accepted the belief that mental decline as we age was inevitable, but we now know this isn’t necessarily true. We once thought our brains were hard-wired – the idea that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But new research has shown that 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.” Neuroplasticity is what allows the brain to be “re-wired” to function better.
The best part? There are things you can do at home to help re-wire your brain, resulting in a sharper memory, improved focus, better sleep, less anxiety, and a more stable mood. Here are just a few:
1. Develop a Brain-Healthy DietResearch has shown that people who follow a Mediterranean-style diet are less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment, dementia, and depression. This style of eating is characterized by:
- Plant-based foods — fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts
- Low-carb — no white rice or white bread
- Healthy fats — like olive oil, instead of margarine or butter
- Herbs and spices — instead of salt to flavor food
- High protein — lean meats, like salmon and poultry, 3 or 4 times per week
- Low red meat — no more than a few times per monthExperts are still unsure as to what it is about the Mediterranean diet that is responsible for its positive effects. It could be that this style of eating helps keep blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol low. When too high, these three factors are linked to an increased risk of dementia.
2. Exercise to Improve Brain HealthIt should be no surprise that exercising is good for you. Not only does it keep you trim and strong, but studies have also linked physical fitness to brain health. Increasing your heart rate causes an increase in blood flow to your brain. This can help improve memory, attention, mood, and sleep. In fact, one study that examined exercise and brain health showed that the hippocampus grew larger in individuals who took up consistent, regular exercise, such as frequent, brisk walking.Exercises like yoga are also a great way to work out your body and your mind at the same time. The breath-focused and meditative qualities of yoga have been shown to help lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is thought to be harmful to the brain.
3. Challenge YourselfStudies have shown that certain activities can help the brain produce new cells and aid in mental dexterity. This extra cell production can increase the plasticity of the brain and help offset any future cell loss.There are many ways to try challenging your brain at home. Try:
- Taking a new route home
- Brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand
- Word puzzles
- Taking a class (foreign language, gardening, dance, etc.)
- Drawing, painting, crafting
4. SocializePeople with strong social ties to friends, family, and their community have been shown to be happier and live longer than people without those ties. Furthermore, people who are lacking social connections are at a higher risk for developing depression, anxiety, and cognitive decline over time.
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American Academy of Neurology (AAN). (2017, January 4). Mediterranean diet may have lasting effects on brain health. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 31, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/01/170104174210.htm
Godman, Heidi. (2015, October 29). “Challenge your mind and body to sharpen your thinking skills.” Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/challenge-your-mind-and-body-to-sharpen-your-thinking-skills-201510298507
Harvard Health Publishing. (2018, January 16). “12 ways to keep your brain young.” Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/12-ways-to-keep-your-brain-young
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