June has many people seeing purple —purple shirts, that is, in observance of Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month. Events and activities throughout the month seek to build awareness of dementia symptoms and the search for a cure. But it’s also a good opportunity to learn about ways to maintain the health of our brains throughout our lives. A plethora of recommendations can be found online, but here are the five most common indicators of brain health:
1. Heart Health = Brain Health
Your heart keeps oxygen moving through blood vessels, and a good oxygen supply is critical to good brain health. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking and diabetes all increase the risk for developing neurodegenerative diseases by impeding blood flow to the brain. When artery walls thicken with plaque or harden — a condition called atherosclerosis — the heart often cannot pump enough blood to the brain. This can not only lead to an overall decline in brain health, it can also lead to ischemic stroke, a blood clot that forms cutting off the blood supply to an area of the brain. The clot can cause temporary or even permanent brain damage.
2. Plenty of Sleep = Brain Health
To keep your brain in tip top shape, give it a rest for 7-9 hours a night. Doctors tell us sleep is the most important thing you can do to reset the brain, allow it to heal, and to restore health. Recent research has discovered that sleep helps the brain clear out toxins called beta-amyloids that have been linked to Alzheimer’s and other dementias. To get the best night’s sleep, try going to bed at the same time each night. Turn off the electronics 30 minutes prior to bedtime, or settle your brain by reading, taking a warm bath, drink a cup of warm herbal tea or practice some deep breathing exercises. In other words, do something relaxing to help your brain be unconcerned while you sleep.
3. Continued Learning = Brain Health
The old adage, “Use it or lose it,” definitely applies to maintaining brain health. Findings from a wide range of studies over the past decades have all found that brains can be trained and developed by mental exercise. What kind of exercise? You may be surprised to learn you do not have to undertake extensive brain training to ensure good brain health. Reading, playing games, working crossword puzzles are all good ways to continue learning. Learning a new skill, such as woodworking, or a new language, can also keep your brain active and healthy.
4. Exercise = Brain Health
Along with keeping you physically fit, exercise provides important benefits to your brain health. Dancing, walking, or going for a swim all boost blood flow to the brain. Studies have even shown that exercise can increase the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that stores memories and which begins to shrink with age.
5. Social Interaction = Brain Health
Finally, studies have shown that when you engage with others, blood flows to different parts of the brain as you listen and create responses. Socializing with others on a regular basis also wards off loneliness, which can lead to depression and anxiety. Depression and anxiety tax the brain and can lead to a decline in cognitive abilities. As the rest of June unfolds, take a few moments to consider your own brain health, and how you may adopt one or more of the tips above to help ensure your brain will age well as you go through life.