It’s estimated that 47 million Americans are showing some evidence of preclinical Alzheimer’s disease. This means they’re showing early signs of dementia that they may not even notice. What more people are realizing is that it’s in our power to improve our brain health, prevent cognitive decline and even stave off Alzheimer’s. We can impact this by focusing on the pillars of brain health.
Importance of Brain Health
Dementia is associated with aging and can lead to memory loss and even a loss of independence. When dementia is severe enough, people are unable to even feed or bathe themselves. Our brain health is directly related to our risk of the cognitive decline that can lead to dementia and Alzheimer’s. Many people believe it’s already determined by their genes whether they’ll develop dementia or Alzheimer’s. However, more recent research is showing this isn’t the case. Your brain doesn’t age like the rest of your body, and there’s much you can do to preserve cognitive function for the long term. Cognitive decline isn’t inevitable. Knowing that you can do something to protect your cognitive abilities should make brain health your top priority. Regardless of what age you are now, you can invest in your brain to keep it sharp into your golden years.
Myths About Brain Health
Many people who do want to take action to protect their brains fall prey to misguided advice. Some actions you’ve been taking or may have heard of aren’t effective at all at preserving cognitive decline. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a practicing neurosurgeon, medical correspondent and the author of the book “Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age,” looked into some of them. He found that there’s little proof that “brain-boosting” supplements make any difference in attention, memory or focus. Leisure activities, such as playing solitaire or completing crossword puzzles, may have some benefit, but not enough to protect your brain from cognitive decline. Instead, what makes the biggest difference is your lifestyle choices and the way you live your life every day. The Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) looked into the factors that make the biggest difference. The GCBH includes 94 experts from 23 countries and involves 80 universities or research organizations. This organization has come up with what it calls the “Pillars of Brain Health.”
What Are the Pillars of Brain Health?
The five pillars of brain health are the areas that contribute the most to preventing cognitive decline. While the idea of making major changes may seem daunting, you may find you’re already taking many of these steps. Much of the same advice you’ve been given to prevent heart disease, diabetes and stroke also applies to brain health. In addition to that, some of the steps you can take are relatively simple. Dr. Gupta states that just getting up and moving for 2 minutes every hour can go a long way toward maintaining your brain health.
The 5 Pillars of Brain Health
You have it within your power to not only make yourself more fit and healthy, but even more sharp. You can start now to build what researchers call “cognitive reserve” so that you can have brain resiliency, which is the hallmark of brain health.
The first pillar is physical activity, such as exercise. However, any physical movement will help with your brain health. Your brain prefers your body to be in motion. You can play sports, walk, dance, swim, ride a bike or do anything that gets you up off the couch. Gardening counts, as does cooking or vacuuming. Physical exertion actually causes the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which plays a significant role in synaptic plasticity. Synaptic plasticity means your neurons and synapses can create new pathways, which enhances your cognitive abilities. Cognitive decline is twice as likely in adults who aren’t active compared to those who get moving.
This pillar involves both reducing stress and getting plenty of restorative sleep. While stress can actually play a role in helping us stay motivated to face challenges, chronic stress is harmful to our brains. You want to make sure you’re taking breaks from stress through meditation, hobbies, reading and, of course, exercise. Exercise helps reduce the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Getting plenty of regular sleep is also very important for brain health. Human growth hormone is released while you sleep and plays an important role in cognitive function and memory. One way to help fall asleep faster is to turn down the lights and turn off electronic devices 30 minutes to an hour before going to bed.
You may already be trying to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet for your overall health. However, there’s one nutrient you want to make sure you’re including: omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 is found in fish, with the highest amount in salmon, which is why fish is called brain food. Eating healthy can also help prevent heart disease, diabetes and stroke, which also can help protect your brain. Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s brain health S.H.A.R.P. protocol includes:
- Slash salt and sugar
- Hydrate without sugary drinks
- Add more omega-3s
- Reduce meal portions
- Plan ahead
Doing or learning something new is one of the best ways to develop new neural connections, which can help you maintain brain health. This can be as simple as using your opposite hand or taking a different route to a familiar place, or as complex as learning a new language. You can take up a new hobby, read books, take a class, learn an instrument or do anything you’ve never done before. Brain games stimulate your cognitive abilities much more than crossword puzzles.
Strengthen existing relationships and make new friends. Our relationships are important to our overall health, especially our brain health. Reach out to family members and call them on the phone or video chat. You can combine several pillars at once by doing them with other people. Good relationships help protect your brain and keep you sharp.
There’s Help Available for Your Brain Health
If you want to find more ways to improve your brain health beyond reading Dr. Gupta’s brain health book, our trained professionals here at Sun Health Center are available to answer your questions. Take a step toward maintaining a healthy brain by booking an appointment today.