By Sandra Kettle, Experience Life
For all the thinking we do with the brain, we rarely think about it. The 3-pound mass of crevices and folds is always out of sight — and too often out of mind. But the sooner we start paying attention to our brain, the better. Researchers, who once thought the brain’s neural circuitry was hardwired at a young age, have discovered that our brain is pliable and that we can fortify it through nutritional, physical and lifestyle habits throughout our life.
And we should. A healthy brain pays major dividends: Emerging research shows that the well-maintained brain is quicker, smarter, more resilient and more adept at stabilizing mood. It’s also less forgetful and less prone to age-related decline.
The human brain — at any age — is able to strengthen, deepen and change existing neural connections (a process called neuroplasticity), and to develop new neural cells (called neurogenesis). We can encourage these changes by adopting many of the same lifestyle habits that sustain healthy bodies, from focusing on good nutrition and physical fitness to managing stress. Indeed, Michael Craig Miller, MD, editor-in-chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter, has described the health of the body and the health of the mind as virtually one and the same.
Think of the hemispheres of the brain as two cities connected by a network of telephone wires, says Thomas Perls, MD, MPH, associate professor of medicine and geriatrics at the Boston University School of Medicine and coauthor of Living to 100: Lessons in Living to Your Maximum Potential at Any Age (Basic Books, 2000). “Now we know there are things you can do to add more wires.”
With a focus on fitness, good food and stress relief, you can “add more wires” and help your brain stay strong, healthy and resilient at any age. Here’s how you can begin tailoring your choices to maximize your brain’s health.
Flex Your Brain Muscles
Thanks to increased awareness of the mind-body connection, you probably already know that your mind affects your body. But do you know how much your body can affect your mind? A few years ago, Arthur Kramer, PhD, a neuroscientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, began to study how exercise affects the brain. Now one of the country’s top brain-and-exercise researchers, Kramer is convinced that working up a sweat is critical for brain health.
“Across the board, exercise increases brain function, memory retention and other key areas of cognition up to 20 percent,” he says. Although Kramer and his colleagues don’t understand precisely how working out bolsters brain health, they have a few theories.
For starters, exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which is crucial for a healthy head. The brain accounts for only 2 percent of the body’s overall weight, but it guzzles 15 percent of its blood flow. In many ways, a healthy brain and a healthy heart go hand-in-hand. Just as exercise gets blood flowing through the heart’s arteries, keeping them open, flexible and unclogged, it does the same for the blood vessels in the brain.
Another theory involves the protein IGF1, a biochemical released in the body every time a muscle contracts and relaxes. As outlined by reporter Mary Carmichael in a March 26, 2007, Newsweek article on exercise and the brain, IGF1 flows to the brain and prompts it to produce brain-derived neuro-trophic factor, or BDNF, the biochemical that fuels learning. It’s what helps our synapses store new facts and information as we gather them. Hence, the more BDNF we have coursing through our noggins, the more information they can hold.
Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey, MD, author of the forthcoming book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (Little, Brown and Company, 2008), explained the process this way: “It’s like Miracle-Gro for the brain.”
In a December 2006 study published in the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences, Kramer hints that exercise may actually encourage the brain to make new connections between neurons and to build new vascular structures. His team measured the brain volume of volunteers with high-tech scans. Then the participants exercised an hour a day, three days a week for six months. At the end of the study, when Kramer’s team repeated the brain scan, the exercisers’ brains were bigger than before.
Next: Other ways to build a better brain