Our brains are more adaptive than we ever imagined. Neuroplasticity describes the amazing ability of our brains to reorganize and adapt itself to form new neural connections throughout life. Scientists have now shown that brain maps are adaptive and malleable and can be "re-wired" so that one area can assume the function of another.
Re-organizing of our brain maps though is not the only amazing brain superpower. Scientists studying recovery from brain injury have shown that parts of our brains possess the ability to regenerate throughout adult life. Neurogenesis, the regeneration of brain cells, suggests that maybe an old dog can learn new tricks after all.
So how do we harness the possibilities of neuroplasticity and neurogenesis to maintain and improve our brain health and function? The answer is largely in our reach. Through targeted lifestyle interventions we can indeed boost our brain health and fitness. Here is an eight-step plan to get started.
1. Exercise your brain
If you don't use it, you risk losing it! Brain exercise does not require however a membership in a "brain gym" or downloading the latest "brain game" app. Instead, you can challenge your brain often with novel and engaging activities. Learning to play a musical instrument, speak a new language or taking on a new hobby can provide ongoing learning and mental challenge. Change your scenery. Traveling to new locations and exploring them- without relying on navigation tools to get around -- can bolster cognition.
2. Take risks and make mistakes
Trying new things requires risk taking behaviour. The failures that arise from our own decisions to take risks can often provide better learning experiences than the successes. This is because of the powerful impact of negative feedback in our adaptive neural networking. If you want to know how to do something, trying it and doing it wrong a few times is often necessary to learn and retain the new knowledge. Indeed, we learn a lot from our mistakes. And it is always better to try and fail then to not have tried at all. As Wayne Gretzky has famously said, "You miss 100 per cent of the shots you don't take".
3. Practice positivity and action-oriented thinking
Negative thinking and self-doubt can actually kill neurons and prevent the creation of new ones. On the other hand, optimism can provide a buffer to protect the brain from stress. A morning ritual of inscribing in a gratitude journal can help drive positive thinking, until optimism is more automatic and the brain can turn to action-oriented productive thoughts. When the brain thinks about action, the learning and networking that occurs nearly matches the mental memory laid down by performing the action.
As the Canadian psychiatrist, scientist and acclaimed author of The Brain that Changes Itself, Dr. Norman Doidge, has said; "imaging an act engages the same motor and sensory programs that are involved in doing it." In other words, merely thinking about action is almost as good for your brain as doing it.
4. A strong frame is needed for a healthy brain
Sitting is the new smoking. Beyond all the other health benefits of being active, exercise also enhances brain function and neurogenesis at any age. Moderate intensity aerobic activity like jogging or cycling, has been shown to boost concentration in school-aged children, improve cognitive performance and reduce the risk of dementia in adults.
5. Consume superfoods for a better brain
The MIND diet has been endorsed as a brain healthy diet that combines the Mediterranean diet with a reduced salt heart healthy DASH diet. The MIND diet has been shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease.
What about brain super foods? Specific nutrients have been shown to effect mood, memory and brain performance. Early human brain development (encephalization) tracks closely to the development of a shore based diet rich in fish derived omega 3 fatty acids (notably DHA).
More recently, comparative studies have shown that countries where there is little fish consumption have higher rates of depression than countries that have DHA-rich diets. Omega 3 rich foods include fatty fish (sardines, salmon), krill and walnuts. Phytonutrients in berries (blueberries) and cruciferous vegetables (like kale) have anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory brain boosting benefits. Brain-active flavonoids can be found in ginkgo leaves, cocoa, dark chocolate, and green tea and caffeine has been shown to improve memory, mental performance, and protect against depression in women.
6. Sleep well to reboot your brain
A good night's sleep is vital to brain health. During sleep, the brain is unencumbered to carry out important housekeeping tasks such as flushing out accumulated toxins (like beta-amyloid the hallmark protein of Alzheimer's) and cementing new learning and memories through neuroplasticity.
New research suggests that sleep deprivation blocks memory formation and ability of the brain to repair from daily wear and tear. As a result, lack of sleep can lead to shrinking brain volume. So night owls beware; the sleep deficit accumulated from getting less than seven to eight hours a night may increase the risk of cognitive decline, memory loss and Alzheimer's disease.
7. Buffer stress
Stress serves as a common denominator in aging the brain and body. Stress shrinks vital brain components such as the hippocampus, amygdala and prefrontal cortex; the three regions responsible for memory, learning and biofeedback. While small amounts of stress at the time of learning may be critical to encode new information in the first place, excessive stress acutely or extreme stress chronically can greatly impair memory and learning. The best way to mitigate the toll of stress is to continuously hone your stress management techniques. Since we can't avoid stress, it is good to prepare by mastering the practice of mindfulness, meditation and deep breathing. New neurofeedback driven meditation tools, like the brain-sensing headband MUSE, can help keep you on track.
8. Boost your social network
Spending time enjoying the company of friends can be good for your brain. Social interactions have been shown to boost brain function as much as intellectual stimulation. So to maintain your mental vitality as you age, cherish your friends and spend time laughing together. It's good for your brain!
The new science of neuroplasticity and neurogenesis has informed us that the choices we make can shape our brain health as we age. These science-based brain tips can be incorporated into your lifestyle to improve memory and cognitive performance. Brain vitality is well within your reach!
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It’s all too easy to remain in your comfort zone, but learning a new skill, language or musical instrument will not only stimulate the little grey cells but enrich your life too.
Everyday routines drain our brains, so change things about. From the routes you take to the shops or work, to what you cook for dinner, the changes you make can be big or small, but encourage yourself to step away from the norm.
Although it is important to challenge yourself, you must also take time to refresh and unwind. Our brains require time to process information deeply in order to learn from our daily experiences. It may sound obvious, but relaxing reduces stress and the over-production of brain chemicals and hormones, such as cortisol, which in large quantities can negatively affect parts of the brain.
Watching too much TV can dull brain programming. Instead, put on your favourite music playlist, turn the volume up and really listen to it rather than just have it as background sound. Research shows that music can lower stress hormones which impede memory and increase feelings of well-being.
More mess leads to more stress! Revamp your home or workplace by de-cluttering and provide mental space for creativity and renewal.
Research shows that when you’re persistently sleep-deprived, your body doesn’t have the time to build proteins, which can damage your brain. So go to bed early and, once a week, give yourself a treat and stay in bed for an extra hour or so.
When was the last time you tried to write, draw or even stir your tea with your weaker hand? Doing day-to-day activities with your "other" hand can drive your brain to make positive changes, as it requires the brain to pay close attention to a normally unconscious behaviour.
Exercise can improve our energy levels and immune system, as well as our sense of wellbeing, sleep, and brain health. Again, variety can be key, and taking up a new activity – be it yoga, swimming, Nordic walking or kick boxing – is invigorating and pushes us to learn new disciplines. Nervous about something new? Take a friend along to encourage you and so you can both make changes in your life.
Although coffee or tea will give you an immediate boost, too many cups can be harmful for your brain. Sipping water can be remarkably helpful when your energy levels are ebbing or your concentration is starting to dip.
Finally, just in case this has all sounded a bit serious so far, the tenth tip is to simply: “have fun”. Socialising and spending happy time with friends and family enables the sharing of experiences, challenges, emotions, trust, and understanding. Research shows that people with five or more regular social ties halved their risk of cognitive decline compared to those with no social ties.
Follow Dr. Jennifer Pearlman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drjpearlman