29 Jan 11 Tips for a Lifelong Healthy Brain
Dr. Eric Harris is a neuroscientist, hobby farmer, and instructor for Duke and North Carolina State Universities’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes which engage older adults in their retirement years. He has taught several courses concentrating on the aging brain, critical thinking, and brain fallibility.
Dr. Harris became interested in the brain at the young age of 10 during a game of hide and go seek, when he noticed he could sense an internal “ticking off” while counting. He asked himself, “If there is no muscle in my brain, what’s ticking?” Fascinated by this phenomenon and several other experiences in his teen and college years, he decided to pursue a lifelong career in neuroscience.
A pressing concern shared by many of his students is how to promote brain plasticity to counter brain diseases related to aging. Brain plasticity described by Dr. Harris as, “the ability of the brain to build new connections between different neurons” is believed to help people recover from brain trauma and prevent or slow brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Frontotemporal Dementia.
Dr. Harris explains that the brain needs to be cared for in ways similar to the rest of the body to maintain cognitive function through the aging years. Here are a few of his tips on how to help prevent brain diseases:
- Be aware of your genetic predisposition because it plays a major role in brain health (Ponomareva, et al., 1998). Knowing what diseases affected various blood relatives can at least help you prepare for what may come.
- Eat a varied diet rich in fruits and vegetables (Hong, et al., 2010).
- Get plenty of aerobic exercise on a regular basis. Dr. Harris mentions that several scientific studies support the notion that maintaining cognitive function correlates with physical exercise as it promotes new neuron production. (Choi, 2018) (Davis, et al., 2017)
- Engage in bone-building exercises regularly. (Kosmidis, 2018) Liu, et al., (2009) states, “Resistance training may prevent cognitive decline among seniors via mechanisms involving insulin-like growth factor I and homocysteine” (pg. 25).
- Don’t smoke. Cessation of smoking has been proven to produce cognitive benefits in older people (Flicker, et al., 2011).
- Maintain a healthy weight with special attention to the body mass index. A 2017 longitudinal study by Deckers, et al. showed faster decline in memory, executive function, and processing speed among the obese over a 12 year period.
- Avoid chronic, unwanted stress such as worry, resentment, hate, fear, and bitterness. “Long-term stress can lead to prolonged increases in cortisol, which can be toxic to the brain. Scientists suspect high levels of cortisol, the so-called stress hormone, over long periods are key contributors to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, which severely impair short-term memory and other cognitive functions” (Stress and Cognitive Decline, 2014, para. 25).
- Challenge your brain by becoming a lifelong learner. Exercise your brain with varied thinking activities that don’t come easily to you.
- Get plenty of sleep. Scientific studies prove the brain contains a housecleaning system that flushes out impurities while you sleep. This helps to prevent brain fog and some memory issues. Dr. Harris says, “Don’t view sleep as time wasted. And remember quality matters as much as quantity.”
- Establish a daily meditation practice. “Meditation has been shown to have positive effects on the brain and can help reverse memory loss as well as help improve psychological and spiritual well-being, which are both important for healthy brain aging” (qtd. in Stress and Cognitive Decline, 2014, para. 30).
- Avoid isolation and loneliness by maintaining a social life. Dr. Harris says, “The hardest thing that we do as humans is communicate through face-to-face and group communications that involve not just understanding words, but context, listener reaction, etc. Because communication is one of the hardest things that our brains do—so is very brain demanding—reducing social communication would be cutting off some brain exercise.”
Beyond these tips, be open to suggestions from loved ones as you age such as when it is time to stop driving or using power tools. Work on acceptance if you experience some decline. Also, have a long-term care plan in place.
If you are interested in learning more about brain health from Dr. Harris, register for one of his classes at Duke or North Carolina State Universities’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Choi, SH et al “Combined adult neurogenesis and BDNF mimic exercise effects on cognition in an Alzheimer’s mouse model” 2018 Science Vol. 361, No. 6406
Davis, Jennifer C; Hsiung, Ging-Yuek Robin; Stirling, Bryan; Best, John R; Eng, Janice J; et al. (2017) Economic evaluation of aerobic exercise training in older adults with vascular cognitive impairment: PROMoTE. BMJ Open; London Vol. 7, Iss. 3, . DOI:10.1136/bmjopen-2016-014387
Deckers, K., van Boxtel, M. P., , J., Verhey, F. R., J., & Köhler, S. (2017). Obesity and cognitive decline in adults: Effect of methodological choices and confounding by age in a longitudinal study. The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging, 21(5), 546-553. doi:http://dx.doi.org.contentproxy.phoenix.edu/10.1007/s12603-016-0757-3
Flicker, L., Liu-Ambrose, T., & Kramer, A. F. (2011). Why so negative about preventing cognitive decline and dementia? the jury has already come to the verdict for physical activity and smoking cessation. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 45(6), 465. doi:http://dx.doi.org.contentproxy.phoenix.edu/10.1136/bjsm.2010.077446
Kosmidis, S. et al Cell Rep. 2018 Oct 23;25(4):959-973.e6. “RbAp48 Protein Is a Critical Component of GPR158/OCN Signaling and Ameliorates Age-Related Memory Loss.
Li, Hong; Tangney, CC; Kwasny, MJ; Wilson RS; Evans, DA; Morris, MC. (2010) Adherence to a Mediterranean-type dietary pattern and cognitive decline in a community population. The American journal of clinical nutrition. Vol. 93, Iss. 3., pg. 601.
Liu-Ambrose, T., & Donaldson, M. G. (2009). Exercise and cognition in older adults: Is there a role for resistance training programmes? British Journal of Sports Medicine, 43(1), 25. doi: http://dx.doi.org.contentproxy.phoenix.edu/10.1136/bjsm.2008.055616
Ponomareva, N. V., Fokin, V. F., Selesneva, N. D., & Voskresenskaia, N. I. (1998). Possible neurophysiological markers of genetic predisposition to alzheimer’s disease. Dementia and Geriatric Cognitive Disorders, 9(5), 267-73. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.contentproxy.phoenix.edu/docview/232499109?accountid=134061
Stress and Cognitive Decline (2014) Science of the Heart. Retrieved from https://www.heartmath.org/articles-of-the-heart/science-of-the-heart/stress-and-cognitive-decline/.