How to feel good, stay sharp and improve your brain health with a change of season
March 13, 2023
With the discovery of a new drug in 2022 that can alleviate the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, it looks as though science at last, is coming close to one effective treatment. With that said, unfortunately, it’s unlikely that science will come up with a single cure for a disease as complex as Alzheimer’s. What we do know is that how we live our lives is just as important as any drug in preventing Alzheimer’s or age-related decline in our thinking skills.
Ten years ago, a report in Nature (one of the world’s most prestigious science journals) showed that contrary to what is widely believed, it is not our DNA that determines our mental decline as we get older. It is our lifestyle.
Our DNA can only take 25% of the blame for how our brain health changes as we age and we know that at least 40% of all Alzheimer’s cases could be prevented by getting our lifestyle right. This largely boils down to the effect of our daily lives and the level of inflammation in the body. The higher the inflammation is, the faster we age and the faster our health declines. Anything we do which brings down our level of inflammation will slow down ageing and maintain our health, especially in the brain.
Here are six things that will help lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia in later life. And the good news is that it is never too late, at any age, to improve our brain health.
STEP 1: Widen your nutrition
Our Western diet is woefully narrow. About 75% of all the food on sale in supermarkets worldwide is based on only 5 animal and 12 plant species. This narrowness is one of the reasons why many people feel it necessary to take supplements. Start this new season by eating more different types of food, especially plants – fruits, seeds and vegetables – and eat less meat, without cutting it out completely. Cut down on convenience foods, ready meals and processed food – many of which contain large amounts of added sugar and inflammatory Omega-6 fatty acids. Replace Omega-6 with Omega-3 fatty acids by eating more oily fish such as salmon, cod, sardines and pilchards. Four portions a week should do it. In summary, treat your brain by going heavy on plants, light on meat and cutting out sugary foods, especially fizzy drinks which can be replaced easily by drinking water.
STEP 2: Move more
The human body is designed for long daily bouts of physical activity. Evolution never intended us to spend hours per day simply sitting. But that is how most of us spend our days, not just at work, but when we commute and even our leisure time, watching movies, reading and using our ‘smart devices’. There are two sides to this coin: not only should we exercise about 150 minutes per week (brisk walking or jogging, playing sports such as bowls or cycling or going to the gym) but we should also cut down on our sitting time – which I call ‘declaring war on the chair’. Limit your sitting down to no more than 45 minutes in the hour by taking ‘movement breaks’ of 10-15 minutes. It’s been found that exercise not only builds the body but builds the brain, releasing vital chemicals in the brain which promote the formation of new brain cells.
STEP 3: Create better ‘sleep hygiene’
If it’s one thing that everyone finds elusive in our modern lives, then it’s a good night’s sleep. Not only does it make us feel better, a good night’s sleep is essential for brain health. Lack of sleep is highly inflammatory, raising the levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and preventing vital maintenance of the brain. You can think of sleep as your brain’s rinse cycle for clearing out junk that could contribute to decline and disease. Make sleep one of your priorities this season by preparing better each night and being more consistent in the time you go to bed. We call this ‘sleep hygiene’. Our lives are flooded with light 24/7, much of it artificial such as the blue light from screens of all kinds – our TV, phones, computer or iPad. One big move would be to stop using any screen at least one hour before going to bed and where possible, keep all blue light screens out of the bedroom.
STEP 4: Take more downtime
The pressures of modern life have increased our stress levels hugely, whether it’s financial pressures, demands from family life, commuting, work deadlines or even from our friendships. Continuous stress like this is highly inflammatory and hugely damaging to our brain health. Anything we can do to ‘take time out’ and forget our worries will be immensely beneficial to our brain. In these pages, we recommend yoga as a means of relaxation. For those who can’t take up yoga, try meditation or ‘mindfulness’ as a means of reducing the pernicious effects of anxiety. In essence, it is all about choosing something new this season, helping to distract us from the everyday pressures of life. Balancing our negative emotions (sadness, anger, jealousy, self-criticism, fear, or rejection) with positive ones (love, joy, satisfaction, contentment and happiness) is supremely important to the brain. Any new leisure activity which makes us feel more positive will contribute to better long term brain health and this can include music, art and even pets.
STEP 5: Learn something new
Many people ask, ‘will games, crosswords and puzzles help my memory and keep me sharp?’. The answer is, it depends, and it depends on whether you are learning a new skill. If we stay in our comfort zone, use the same routine or mental activity, then there’s no guarantee that games or puzzles will defend the brain against decline. With many such activities, there’s often no transfer to everyday life. In other words doing games and puzzles won’t necessarily help you with your finances or enable you to recall where you placed something. The key is to learn something new and stay mentally challenged. For the brain, this is so vital that studies show someone who retires at age 65 has about a 15% lower risk of developing dementia compared with someone retiring at 60, even after other factors are taken into account. Retire late, or never at all. Or just work less days a week. Choose different routes to familiar destinations. Brush your teeth with the non-dominant hand or tie your shoes ‘left-handed’. Skip the solitary games and crossword puzzles and choose a new activity which involves other people, such as dancing, learning a musical instrument or even a new language.
STEP 6: Stay connected
Over 1.5 million years of evolution, the need to mix with others became embedded in our brain as a vital survival skill. The company of others is as vital to us as food or drink for without it, the human race would never have evolved to where we are today. Loneliness is a light on the dashboard no different to hunger and thirst. Studies have shown that over an extended period (eg. 10-12 years) those who perceive themselves to be lonely suffer a 12% greater decline in memory than those who do not. Of course, there are big individual differences but generally the regular company of others is hugely beneficial to our brain health. Reducing loneliness reduces anxiety and fends off depression, as we have seen everywhere in the world where lockdown has been followed by huge increases in mental health problems. We are social creatures who need social connection to thrive, especially when it comes to brain health. Call your friends today. Invite someone over for dinner. Go for a walk with others and talk over your problems. Cherish your friendships and relationships. Amazingly, as much as any drug, the strength of our connections with others predicts how well we age and how sharp we stay as we journey through life. Good relationships protect our brain. They are a secret to a long, sharp life.
The Last Word
Always remember that mental decline is not necessarily inevitable. Research suggests a healthy lifestyle can help protect your brain health in the long term. There’s no silver bullet to improve our brain health, but I often say, it’s not any single thing that we do, but the single things that we do everyday that will make the difference.
Read ‘Supercharge Your Brain’ by Professor James Goodwin, which outlines additional lifestyle features and practical tools to be implemented into everyday life, prevent future cognitive decline.
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