While everyone seems to know it’s important to have a healthy heart, you don’t hear as much about how to maintain a healthy brain. Focusing on your brain health when you’re younger can reduce neurological decline as you age. The American Academy of Neurology estimates that 37% of people aged 85 and older show mild cognitive impairment, which can lead to dementia.
What Is Neurological Decline?
Neurological decline, also called cognitive decline, is the reduced processing speed, reasoning skills and memory function that result from a loss of synapses in the brain. Synapses are the connective structures found in a healthy brain.
Most people who begin experiencing neurological decline notice it somewhat, but not enough to interfere with normal activities. As the decline advances, it can become severe enough that a person may forget their own name, where they live and how to eat or dress themselves. Healthy brain neurology is as much about being able to maintain your independence as it is about your overall health.
Causes of Cognitive Decline
Aging is the most common cause for neurological decline, with even healthy brains affected before age 40. Age-related cognitive decline is progressive, and it becomes more apparent in a person’s 50s and 60s. Other causes can include:
- Degenerative brain disorders: Neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis, often present with memory impairment.
- Health conditions: Diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity can lead to decreased brain function.
- Mental health conditions: Clinical depression and bipolar disorder have been linked to cognitive decline.
- Brain injuries: Head injuries or brain hypoxia resulting from cardiac arrest or stroke can lead to neurological degeneration.
- Sleep disorders: Sleep apnea can cause decreased brain function.
- Substance abuse: Alcoholism and drug abuse can lead to memory loss.
Can Cognitive Decline Be Reversed?
Your brain has the ability to change and adapt to new information through a process called neuroplasticity, where your neurons and synapses create new pathways. This can allow you to enhance your ability to learn, increase your cognitive abilities and improve your memory, no matter what age you are.
Although neuroplasticity slows down as you get older, researchers have found ways to increase it. For example, learning new things can increase neuroplasticity. Also, studies have found that exercising produces a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which helps regulate synaptic plasticity.
How to Prevent Memory Decline
The first step in preventing memory decline is to take care of your overall health. As a rule of thumb, anything that’s good for your heart is also good for your brain. A nutritious diet and active lifestyle can go a long way toward protecting both your heart and your brain.
Secondly, be sure to have regular medical checkups. Catching medical conditions early, such as high blood pressure, prediabetes and heart problems, may keep you from developing major health issues later in life.
To increase neuroplasticity, learn new things. The connective structures in your brain need to be exercised to stay strong. There are many ways to exercise your brain, and they can all help you develop the new pathways that can inhibit memory decline.
5 Keys to a Healthy Brain
You can take steps today to help prevent cognitive decline and develop healthy brain neurology. Here’s how to maintain a healthy brain:
1. Challenge Your Brain
Exercising your brain can range from simple things, such as using your left hand to do something you always do with your right hand (or vice-versa), to much more complex activities. Regardless, you want to try, learn or do something you’ve never done before. Here are some suggestions:
- Take a new route to somewhere familiar
- Do math long-hand rather than using a calculator
- Try to remember recent events in detail
- Try a new sport
- Take a dance class
- Play a new instrument
- Sign up for an art class
- Learn a new language
- Read new books
- Do mind games online
2. Nourish Your Brain
A healthy brain needs a well-balanced, nutritious diet that’s low in cholesterol and saturated (animal) fat while including plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Eating healthy can also help prevent obesity, diabetes and other major diseases that can affect cognitive function.
A few foods and nutrients have been shown to especially help the brain. Fish, especially salmon, is high in omega-3 fatty acids. Adding more fish to your diet can help nourish your brain while also benefiting your heart. You can take fish oil capsules every day to get even more omega-3s.
Research also suggests that antioxidants can help protect the brain. Be sure to consume foods high in antioxidants, such as berries, broccoli and spinach. Vitamin E and C supplements can also supply you with brain-protecting antioxidants.
3. Engage in Daily Physical Activity
Exercise has been proven, beyond anything else you can do, to help you maintain a healthy brain. Not only does it benefit your overall health, but it has some specific benefits just for your brain:
- BDNF protein production: Studies have shown that each exercise session produces a “dose” of BDNF, and the level remains elevated for several days after exercising.
- Improves mood: Research shows that your brain releases dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline after just 12 minutes of cardiovascular exercise.
- Reduces stress hormones: Exercise can help reduce adrenaline and cortisol levels.
While going to the gym regularly may not fit your lifestyle, you can look for ways to add more exercise into your existing routine. For example, park farther away, take the stairs rather than the elevator or take a short walk during your lunch break.
4. Get Plenty of Sleep
5. Protect Your Brain
To have a healthy brain, you need to protect it from injury in the following ways:
- Wear seat belts and helmets.
- Be careful on wet or slippery surfaces to prevent falls.
- Maintain normal blood pressure to reduce your risk of stroke.
- Have regular medical checkups.
- Meditate, relax and take breaks from stress.
- Don’t smoke.
- Don’t abuse alcohol or other substances.
Help Is Available
If you’re looking for ways to reduce your risk of neurological decline and memory loss, our trained professionals at Sun Health Center are here to help. Find out more about how to maintain a healthy brain by booking an appointment today.