The idea that our brains experience cognitive decline as we age has long been accepted as part of the aging process – as we get older, we expect to misplace our keys more often or to struggle to recall someone’s name. This is just one of those unfortunate realities of life, right?
Well – not necessarily.
Thanks to advancing science and technology, we’ve learned more about the human brain in the past 20 years than in the entire history of modern medicine. And out of this exponential leap forward, we’ve found evidence to support that the brain is capable of growth and change at any age.
Why Brain Size Matters
Why are growth and change important? Research has made correlations between bigger brains and better brain health, and smaller brains with possible cognitive decline. But knowing now that we can change our brains, means that some of the negative side effects of brain shrinkage might be reversible.
These side effects could include memory loss, difficulty maintaining focus, or trouble with language. This might manifest in daily life as difficulty paying bills, preparing meals, or going grocery shopping.
What is Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Essentially, it’s a term that refers to the brain’s ability to learn new things and improve at any age – you’re never too old to learn a foreign language or learn how to play the guitar, it just might require some extra effort.
Studies suggest that people with larger, more neuroplastic brains may be at a lower risk for developing dementia, and could also experience stronger recall, clarity, focus, and creativity.
The Hippocampus’s Role
One area of the brain that’s gained a growing interest is the hippocampus. This area is critical for learning and memory, but it also has a unique ability to generate new neurons every day. Neurons are an indicator of a healthy brain, so the more we have, the more we want to keep.
The bad news is that, without proper cultivation, neurons can’t survive. The good news is that we can make lifestyle changes that may help these neurons grow.
Ways to Improve Brain Health
- ExerciseIf you don’t already exercise, start. 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 in particular examined exercise and brain health and found that the hippocampus grew larger in the participants 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.
- Switch to a Brain-Healthy DietResearch has suggested 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 nutsLow-carb — no white rice or white breadHealthy fats — like olive oil, instead of margarine or butterHerbs and spices — instead of salt to flavor foodHigh protein — lean meats, like salmon and poultry, 3 or 4 times per weekLow red meat — no more than a few times per month.Experts are still unsure as to what it is exactly about the Mediterranean diet that is responsible for its positive effects. It could be that this type of diet is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, as well as vitamins B and D. It also helps keep blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol low. When too high, these three factors are linked to an increased risk of dementia.
- MeditateMeditation may seem like the latest wellness trend, but there’s some substantial science behind it. Some studies even suggest that meditation can change the structure of our brains and improve neuroplasticity.Another study from 2011 found that meditation has the potential to grow the hippocampus. This Harvard-based study found that after only eight weeks of stress reduction-focused meditation, participants had an increase in cortical thickness, as well as an increase in gray matter, in the hippocampus.
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Fotuhi, Majid. (2015, November 4). “Can you grow your hippocampus? Yes. Here’s how, and why it matters.” Retrieved from https://sharpbrains.com/blog/2015/11/04/can-you-grow-your-hippocampus-yes-heres-how-and-why-it-matters/
“Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI).” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 23 Aug. 2018, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mild-cognitive-impairment/symptoms-causes/syc-20354578.
Pohlack, S. T., Meyer, P., Cacciaglia, R., Liebscher, C., Ridder, S., & Flor, H. (2012). Bigger is better! Hippocampal volume and declarative memory performance in healthy young men. Brain structure & function, 219(1), 255-67.
Walton, Alice. (2015, February 9). “7 Ways Meditation Can Actually Change The Brain.” Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2015/02/09/7-ways-meditation-can-actually-change-the-brain/#640d95251465