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A User’s Guide to Lifelong Brain Health: BrainFit for Life

As the Brain Fit­ness indus­try con­tin­ues to gain momen­tum, and peo­ple explore all the incred­i­ble brain-train­ing tools being devel­oped, we hope that enthu­si­asts don’t take their eye off the impor­tance of the phys­i­cal health of the brain and all the sys­tems it com­mu­ni­cates with. The brain is unique in that it hous­es our cog­ni­tive and emo­tion­al capac­i­ties in the form of the mind. It is a ‘cog­ni­tive’ organ that hungers for stim­u­la­tion from new expe­ri­ences and chal­lenges. Many brain fit­ness pro­grams strive to sat­is­fy this need. Yet the brain is also a phys­i­cal organ that plays by many of the same rules as the heart, lungs, liv­er and kid­neys. To stay healthy and per­form opti­mal­ly it requires qual­i­ty nutri­tion, phys­i­cal activ­i­ty and opti­mal sleep. The brain, espe­cial­ly, relies on a healthy vas­cu­lar sys­tem to effi­cient­ly deliv­er oxy­gen and key nutri­ents and remove waste. In fact, the brain uses approx­i­mate­ly 20% of the oxy­gen we breathe to sat­is­fy its high-ener­gy demands. Giv­en that the brain only weighs about 2% of the body, we can con­sid­er it an ener­gy hog and we must cater to its needs very care­ful­ly.

Nutri­ents play key roles in brain func­tion. Sev­er­al have shown effi­ca­cy in clin­i­cal tri­als treat­ing cas­es of mood dis­or­ders, cog­ni­tive decline and of course ben­e­fit­ing the phys­i­cal health of the brain. Nutri­ents are both the raw mate­ri­als employed in cre­at­ing new neur­al con­nec­tions and impor­tant com­po­nents in reg­u­lat­ing the activ­i­ty of genes involved in these process­es. Spe­cif­ic nutri­ents involved in mito­chon­dr­i­al effi­cien­cy, the ener­gy fac­to­ries of brain and body cells, are par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant for many aspects of brain func­tion. Oth­er nutri­ents are involved in the inner work­ings of neu­ronal mem­branes, respon­si­ble for ensur­ing that elec­tro­chem­i­cal sig­nals, which make up our thoughts, trans­mit effi­cient­ly and reli­ably. Final­ly, antiox­i­dants, impor­tant through­out the body, are espe­cial­ly impor­tant in the brain due to its high ener­gy pro­duc­tion rates and con­cur­rent high capac­i­ty for free rad­i­cal leak­age. Keep­ing this in mind, it is read­i­ly appar­ent that nutri­tion pro­vides the build­ing blocks for our brain’s struc­ture and func­tion, and there­fore can­not be ignored.

Exer­cise is a clear­ly estab­lished com­po­nent for pro­mot­ing brain health as well. No longer can we think that the brain is com­plete­ly sep­a­rate from the brawn. Human stud­ies have shown the val­ue of exer­cise in con­trol­ling stress and main­tain­ing pos­i­tive mood states; in improv­ing cog­ni­tive func­tion, includ­ing per­for­mance on mem­o­ry and exec­u­tive tasks; and in improv­ing the brain’s two-way com­mu­ni­ca­tion streams with the rest of the body. Some of these ben­e­fits are like­ly due to the pos­i­tive effects of exer­cise on neu­rovas­cu­lar health, which par­al­lel car­dio­vas­cu­lar health. Oth­er ben­e­fits seem due to increased grey mat­ter in ‘front office’ func­tions of the cor­tex; and neu­ronal birth, or neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis, in the hip­pocam­pus, a brain region that con­trols aspects of mem­o­ry and mood reg­u­la­tion. What­ev­er the mech­a­nism, giv­ing your body a work­out will pro­duce sub­stan­tial ben­e­fits in terms of brain health. Remem­ber, a body in motion tends to stay in motion, and your brain and body will be togeth­er your whole life.

Men­tal activ­i­ty is an obvi­ous, and crit­i­cal, ingre­di­ent for opti­miz­ing and main­tain­ing brain func­tion. Stud­ies have estab­lished rela­tion­ships between the degree of life-time men­tal activ­i­ty and late-life cog­ni­tive func­tion. It’s clear that those who engage in intel­lec­tu­al­ly chal­leng­ing endeav­ors on a reg­u­lar basis reap the ben­e­fits of a clear mind. There is, how­ev­er a need for each indi­vid­ual to bal­ance suf­fi­cient vari­ety with a prop­er degree of chal­lenge. With­out vari­ety and chal­lenge, tasks become too mun­dane and too easy, even­tu­al­ly grow­ing stale and los­ing their capac­i­ty to ade­quate­ly stim­u­late the brain. We must also real­ize that men­tal activ­i­ty goes beyond ‘cog­ni­tive’ tasks. Men­tal activ­i­ties also include prac­tices like med­i­ta­tive focus, relax­ation and stress reduc­tion tech­niques, as well as social inter­ac­tion. These active and dynam­ic process­es chal­lenge the mind as well. Mix­ing cog­ni­tive chal­lenges with emo­tion­al reg­u­la­tion pro­vides a more com­plete men­tal work­out that will help you to use it to improve it.

An often neglect­ed com­po­nent con­tribut­ing to brain health is opti­mal sleep. On aver­age, we sleep approx­i­mate­ly 1.5 hours per night less than we did 100 years ago. Mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy makes it eas­i­er to get less sleep and our busy lives encour­age us to do it. Sleep is far more than a time of rest, and is too often mis­clas­si­fied as a peri­od of lost pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. It is an active meta­bol­ic peri­od for our brains. Sleep is a time when we con­sol­i­date mem­o­ries of the pre­vi­ous day, a time when we re-syn­chro­nize the cir­ca­di­an rhythm of at least dozens, if not hun­dreds, of hor­mones con­trol­ling our metab­o­lism. Sleep loss is asso­ci­at­ed with a high per­cent­age of mood dis­or­ders and cer­tain­ly reduces our cog­ni­tive effi­cien­cies. We must give our­selves per­mis­sion to sleep by real­iz­ing that it is coun­ter­pro­duc­tive to steal from it.

In our new book Brain­Fit For Life: A User’s Guide to Life-Long Brain Health and Fit­ness, we focus equal­lyBrainFit on the cog­ni­tive, emo­tion­al and phys­i­cal health of the brain and all of the lifestyle fac­tors that come into play to main­tain them. Today’s aging pop­u­la­tion is becom­ing increas­ing­ly focused on the main­te­nance of cog­ni­tive health and the val­ue of ‘brain train­ing’ pro­grams. But we must real­ize that such train­ing is not unlike that of an ath­lete, who must focus on their diet, sleep needs and psy­cho­log­i­cal prepa­ra­tion in addi­tion to their phys­i­cal skill devel­op­ment. We explore spe­cif­ic aspects of nutri­tion, exer­cise, men­tal activ­i­ty and sleep. We dis­cuss how they reg­u­late emo­tion­al, phys­i­cal and intel­lec­tu­al func­tions of the brain. After all, they are not sep­a­ra­ble.

To keep the body in good health is a duty…otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.” — Bud­dha, cir­ca 500 B.C.

Simon Evans– This arti­cle was co-writ­ten by Drs. Simon Evans and Paul Burghardt. Drs. Evans Paul Burghardt and who cur­rent­ly col­lab­o­rate in the Uni­ver­si­ty of  Michigan’s Depart­ment of Psy­chi­a­try, and the Mol­e­c­u­lar and Behav­ioral Neu­ro­science Insti­tute to study the effects of nutri­tion and exer­cise on brain func­tion. They are co-authors of Brain­Fit For Life: A User’s Guide to Life-Long Brain Health and Fit­ness.

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5 Responses

  1. Stephen says:

    Thanks for a very inter­est­ing arti­cle. You’ve cov­ered a lot of ground here.

  2. Sleep says:

    I enjoy the mul­ti-pronged approach to good brain health. Diet, exer­cise, “brain fit­ness”, and sleep all come togeth­er to form a healthy brain.

    Looks like a great book. I’ll be read­ing it soon!

  3. Sonja says:

    Thank you for your work in address­ing the top­ic of brain health. The big “three” (Sleep, nutri­tion and exer­cise) is what I have been empha­siz­ing at the brain injury sup­port group I facil­i­tate. Now I have a con­sist, detailed, and up-to-date resource for the infor­ma­tion. This is the type of mate­r­i­al I am look­ing for, how­ev­er, in “my wish list”, I would like a chap­ter on the injured brain. Many thanks for your con­tri­bu­tion.

  4. Glad you enjoyed the arti­cle as much as I did. You will also enjoy many of our inter­views with brain sci­en­tists (look under Resources). Son­ja, we have there a great inter­view with Lee Woodruff, wife of ABC reporter Bob Woodruff, on how he has recovered/ is still improv­ing from his trau­mat­ic brain injury.

  5. Gary D says:

    Excel­lent arti­cle Dr. Evans. It makes per­fect sense to have a bal­anced approach to brain fit­ness, as we’re advised to do with phys­i­cal fit­ness. Prop­er nutri­tion, exer­cise, and rest (recov­ery) a per­fect com­bo for the brain as well as our bod­ies.

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