Active Mind

Introducing, ‘ACTIVE MIND’

September 8, 2023

Why challenging your brain can help reduce the risk of cognitive decline

Protecting our brain health is as important as keeping our bodies healthy. Our brains control everything we do, and even though the brain is not considered a muscle, it still needs a daily ‘work out’. 

The brain weighs around three pounds and is approximately 60% fat. The remaining 40% is a combination of water, proteins, carbohydrates and salts, in which there is an advanced network of blood vessels, neurons and glial cells. These neurons (did you know we have around 100 million neurons in our brains?) and connections are what we need to continually challenge in order to protect our brain health and prevent the risk of cognitive decline. 

Unlike our mental health, which involves our emotional, psychological and social well-being, our Active Mind pillar focuses on the physiology of the brain. This means the physical aspect of the brain (such as the brain’s level of blood flow and the level of inflammation) is at lower risk of disease such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. A healthy brain is one that has good cognitive function and resilience, and one that can cope with the stresses of everyday life while being able to work productively. 

Brain disorders and health conditions are common and can begin at any stage in life. Many factors come into play when it comes to brain disorders – socio-economic status, stress, trauma, genetics – anything that can affect the connections of neurons in our brain. Exposure to traumatic events is one of the top risk factors in brain health problems and alarmingly, in low-middle income countries, only a quarter of people with brain health conditions receive the treatment they need compared to around 65% in high-income countries. (Mckinsey). It has been estimated that brain health conditions cost the global economy an estimated $2.5 trillion annually, and this is expected to increase to $6 trillion by 2030. 

So, what can we do to improve our brain health? 

It is well known that a healthy body protects a healthy mind. Think exercise, healthy eating, getting enough sleep and managing stress effectively and efficiently. Another valuable resource in protecting our brain health is challenging or stimulating our neuronal connections. This is called ‘neuroplasticity’ and is defined as the ability of the nervous system to change its activity in response to stimuli – reordering or growing new neural pathways. This involves physical and functional changes to help us essentially ‘rewire’ our brains and protect our brain health. 

By rewiring the brain, we’re creating new neural pathways and connections. Until recently, experts believed that by the end of our adolescent years our brains were fixed and neurogenesis (the process by which new neurons are formed in the brain) simply stopped. We had no capacity to change or create new neural pathways. The latest research however shows that our brains can actually continue to grow and change throughout adult life. This not only allows us to keep making good decisions as we get older, but it can also help us prevent cognitive decline. And importantly, it’s never too late to start. 

Nicole Vignola, a brain health consultant and scientist says, “If we break neuroplasticity down to its most basic form, it would look something like this: repetition / consistency + attention = lasting change”. Through repetition, or creating a new habit, we’re able to learn new things and enhance our existing cognitive function, strengthen areas where cognitive function has been lost, and even recover from strokes and traumatic brain injuries. 

Alzheimer’s and dementia are known for their progressive attacks on the brain. They slowly destroy memory and thinking skills so that, eventually, it becomes impossible to carry out even the simplest of tasks. Experts believe that Alzheimer’s disease is not limited to old age – the decline of the brain actually starts decades before any symptoms begin to show. By constantly challenging our brains and creating these new neural pathways, we can slow the progress of brain health decline and reduce the risk for developing these diseases in later life. 

Here are a few ways to look after your brain in everyday life:

1.  Expand your vocabulary

Try to learn a new word every day. Even better, try to learn a new language. According to experts, this simple act sparks a multitude of new neural pathways, both visual and auditory. 

2. Leave work at work

So many of us are guilty of taking the stresses of everyday work life home with us. We work hard all day, but as soon as we get home it’s difficult to flick the ‘off switch’. Having a hard stop at the end of the day can boost endorphins and create the conditions for new neural pathways to form. 

3. Use the wrong hand

Non-dominant hand exercises are effective yet tricky. It’s much easier said than done! As well as strengthening the connectivity between neurons it enhances the connectivity between existing neurons. Have you tried brushing your teeth with the opposite hand? Give it a go and see what you think.

4. Practise mnemonic techniques

Mnemonic techniques are formulas and rhymes designed to help you learn or remember something – they give meaning to something so you can recall it much quicker. For example, using acronyms. This is a great way for improving memory and strengthening neural pathway connections. 

5. Be mindful 

Try to increase the time between something happening and your reaction to it, especially if it’s a stressful or triggering event. Not only does this break old habits and encourage positive thinking, but it helps rewire the brain and create new neural pathways. After practising, you’ll begin to see yourself reach with more awareness to any situation – neuroplasticity in its finest form. 

For more information and daily tips on how to have an active mind, follow us on Instagram and TikTok @brainhealthnetwork.