Brain health is one of the most common concerns we’ve heard from our patients. Of course, they probably don’t realize it. They mention symptoms such as depression, anxiety, irritability, mood swings, and problems with focus and memory. These are all symptoms of poor brain health. They may even be signs of Alzheimer’s Disease or other forms of dementia. They may begin during one’s 20s or 30s.
However, did you know that many cases of dementia are actually preventable? Did you know that there are actionable steps you can take now to build a better brain and prevent brain disorders?
This is because of a concept known as “neuroplasticity”.
What is Neuroplasticity?
Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to repair and rewire itself. It does this by forming new connections throughout one’s life. This helps us recover the function lost when brain cells become damaged . The brain cannot replace lost brain cells (as far as we know), but it can form new connections between healthy brain cells. This is how we learn new skills.
Neuroplasticity also means that the brain “learns” from experience. The more the brain performs a task, the more efficient it becomes at doing so. This is akin to the brain making those connections stronger and more reinforced. This is how we refine and maintain those skills.
We have a brain health problem.
The statistics are pretty bleak. More than 50% of people aged 85 and above suffer from some sort of dementia . Dementia sufferers experience helplessness, remaining dependent upon others in order to live their day-to-day lives. Mood swings are rapid; one minute they are calm, and the next minute they’re overcome by anger or rage. They can’t remember their loved ones’ names. Freedom is lost; they can no longer care sufficiently for themselves or make decisions. It’s difficult for them to enjoy a book or a TV show because they have trouble remembering the events and keeping track of the plotline. Sleep can be elusive, and the body clock can become irregular.
Consequently, one would think (or hope) that a conventional family doctor would be able to recognize the early signs of poor brain function and have the proper training for improving brain health.
However, this is, sadly, not the case at all. Despite a long and information-packed training path, regular doctors miss brain deterioration more than half the time .
Achieving Good Brain Health Is Possible
The statistics don’t have to be what they are. The situation is not hopeless. Brain decline isn’t necessarily a normal part of aging. Some people live well into their 90s and 100s without showing a single sign of brain impairment.
Today, I’m going to share how to become one of the healthy ones! By reading this, you will learn seven steps you can take today to your brain health and guard against brain disorders down the road.
Brain Health Boost Strategy 1: Exercise
First, it’s important to get moving! “Exercise” is somewhat of a dirty word. It conjures up images of exertion, fatigue, monotony, and obligation. I much prefer the word “activity”, which sounds much more fun, constructive, and variable.
You do not have to spend hours per day on a treadmill! We are not hamsters. The key to good physical activity is to work smarter, not harder, and to have fun doing it.
Researchers in a study published in 2011 scanned the brains of older people between the ages of 55 and 80. These people were divided into two groups; one group engaged in light-to-moderate exercise (mostly walking) for 45 minutes per session, three times per week, while the other group merely stretched. After one year, their brains were re-scanned.
The results were amazing: those in the walking group gained brain size, particularly in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for short-term memory. Brain size implies brain function, and growth or shrinkage of the brain implies gains or losses in brain function. (Interestingly enough, the hippocampus is the primary target of dementia, and it is damaged by chronic stress.) However, those in the stretching-only group actually lost brain size.
Physical activity, even without strenuous exertion, is probably the single best thing you can do for your brain.
Brain Health Boost Strategy 2: Games
However, these aren’t just any old games; these are special kinds of games known as “brain-training” games. An article published this year in the United Kingdom, from Cambridge University, provided some interesting results .
Research participants consisted of 42 people age 45 or older with “mild cognitive impairment”, a known precursor to dementia. They were given a brain-training game to play on an iPad for only two hours per week. The object of the game was to win gold coins by matching patterns in their correct places.
After a single month (remember, they only played for two hours a week!), their episodic memory improved by an incredible 40%.
“Episodic memory” how we remember autobiographical events: times, places, associated emotions, and other surrounding details. People with Alzheimer’s, Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD), and other forms of dementia often suffer losses of episodic memory.
Brain Health Boost Strategy 3: Food and Nutrition ~ The Ketogenic Diet
“Let thy food be thy medicine,” says the old adage. Although food isn’t the only type of therapy, it’s certainly one of the most important. You may be aware of the popularity of low-carbohydrates (“low-carb”) diets, but you may not know the details.
It all boils down to ketones, the by-product of fat-burning to produce energy when carbohydrate intake is low. Ketones, or ketone bodies, serve as fuel for the body and brain when glucose levels drop, a metabolic state known as ketosis.
Ketosis gets a bad rap in the medical textbooks, but it has significantly positive effects on the brain. One can induce a state of ketosis by eating a low-carb diet; combine a higher fat content, and you get something known as a “ketogenic” diet, or a diet that encourages ketone production. Furthermore, the ketogenic diet has shown promising research results in people with epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, and other brain impairment .
Brain Health Boost Strategy 4: Creativity
Neurology specialists from the University of California at San Fransisco and an art therapist from the Minnesota-North Dakota Alzheimer’s Association advocate that “Alzheimer’s stops where creativity begins”.
In addition, a growing body of research confirms this finding. A study from New York University evaluated an art therapy program created for people with early-stage cognitive decline and found that those engaged in creating art or merely looked at artwork reported higher levels of happiness, social support, and self-esteem .
Also noteworthy, another study published by the American Academy of Neurology studied people in their middle-age and elder years. Those who engaged in artistic activities such as painting, drawing, and sculpting experienced a whopping 73% drop in the same problems with memory and thinking that lead to dementia .
Brain Health Boost Strategy 5: Music
Another growing body of research involves those in the early stages of cognitive decline and music therapy. Music therapy could be defined as listening to music, singing songs, or playing instruments.
The results of these studies give plenty of encouragement as well. Researchers found improvements in tasks that require abstract thinking or keeping track of time and space in those who listened to music.
Those who sang along with songs fared even better. Those people experienced improvement in neuropsychiatric symptoms and could recall memories more readily, even remote memories .
Brain Health Boost Strategy 6: Trying On Different Clothes
Could you actually go to the mall, try on new clothes, and change your brain? You might not even need to go so far as to leave your house. Simply playing “dress-up” with the clothes in your closet could induce brain changes.
This is because changing anything about your life or surroundings could actually change your brain. This concept fuels the idea that even sitting up straighter could influence your overall outlook.
The idea that different clothes can change your brain holds especially true for formal clothing. Researchers at California State University found that putting on formal wear can actually make you feel more powerful !
Brain Health Boost Strategy 7: Living Near a Forest (or at least being in one for a while)
Last but not least, researchers at Max Planck Institute for Human Development found a significant connection between what scientists call an “enriched environment” (defined as “forested areas”) and “amygdala integrity” .
The amygdala governs our emotions, stress responses (“fight or flight”), empathy, and several other important areas. You definitely want your amygdala to have integrity! A malfunctioning amygdala can lead to apathy, bipolar disorder, sociopathy/psychopathy, extreme anxiety, and much more.
On the other hand, being in nature, especially surrounded by trees, can strengthen and balance the amygdala.
Dr. Sweeney knows about brain health!
While working with Dr. Sweeney, you’ll learn:
- What areas of your brain may not be working correctly
- Which crucial brain-related nutrients you may be missing
- How to resolve “Deal-breaker” stressors like toxins, infections, and heavy metals that destroy brain function
- Which foods may be toxic to your brain
- Whether or not your immune system is attacking your brain
- How to navigate a personalized plan to heal your brain and build a better brain
Further Reading on Brain Health:
1 – More about Neuroplasticity from MedicineNet
2 – How exercise and other activities beat back dementia from NPR.org (2013)
3 – How to prevent a delayed Alzheimer’s diagnosis from J Fam Prac (2009)
4 – Brain training games boost memory and may reduce the risk of dementia, research suggests from Telegraph UK and Neuropsychopharmacology (2017)
5 – Ketones to combat Alzheimer’s Disease from PLoS (2016)
6 – Alzheimer’s stops where creativity begins from Mayo Clinic (2013)
7 – Could creativity and socializing preserve your memory? from CNN (2015)
8 – Music therapy is a potential intervention for cognition of Alzheimer’s Disease: A Mini-Review from Trans Neurodegen (2017)
9 – Wearing a suit changes the way your brain works, research finds from ScienceAlert (2015)
10 – In search of features that constitute an “enriched environment” in humans: Associations between geographical properties and brain structure from Sci Rep (2017)