Boosting the Brain With a Healthy Lifestyle
by Benedict Christopher Austria
Medical Associate, Aegle Wellness Center
Even without considering the advances of medicine and geroscience, the number of elderly persons (65 years old and older) will increase all around the world. With “normal ageing,” we do expect some decline in our physiological health and vigor, but a more critical change would be the deterioration of one’s mind. What can we do now to maintain our cognitive functioning?
As we age, our brain volume decreases and the production of neurotransmitters, particularly serotonin and dopamine, declines up to 10% per decade starting in early adulthood. Ageing also makes us susceptible to brain diseases—dementia, mood disorders, and Alzheimer’s disease. Although exact mechanisms are still unknown, risk factors are already being identified. Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and excess body fat put the whole body, including the brain, in a state of inflammation which can make neurodegenerative disorders worse. Therefore, prompt treatment of systemic disease and inflammation may delay the progression of cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases. Besides addressing risk factors, significant lifestyle changes can also help prevent and slow down cognitive impairment.
Neuroscience research from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America shows that aerobic exercise can increase the size of the brain’s hippocampus associated with improvement of memory. This would also translate to reversing age-related loss of brain volume by 1 to 2 years. The research demonstrates that exercise also increases neurotrophic factors (responsible for the formation of new neurons) derived by the brain. Other benefits of exercise include enhanced learning, increased creativity, improved mood, and reduced risk for cognitive impairment.
Research published in Pediatric Exercise Science determined a positive relationship between physical activity and cognitive performance in school-aged children (4–18 years old) in the categories of perceptual skills, intelligence quotient, achievement, verbal tests, mathematics tests, and developmental level/academic readiness. Numerous studies also report that cognitive skills of adults are improved by fitness training, specifically aerobic exercises. This means that for any age group, performing aerobic exercise improves brain function.
Diet is established as another key factor in our health. Among the basic varieties of dietary patterns, the Mediterranean diet has the most extensive research related to cognition and preservation of brain health. This diet is also associated with modifying the inflammatory status and stretching leukocyte telomere length, the biomarker of cellular aging. The Mediterranean diet has an emphasis on olive oil, fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes, whole grains, fish and seafood, and limited consumption of meat.
Epigenetic events, which can also be influenced by nutrition, are changes to a person’s genetic material. They enable specific and age-related changes to a person’s genetic makeup necessary for brain development, structure, and function. Epigenetic mechanisms by which brain dysfunction can occur are also related to a person’s excess intake of calories and lack of certain micronutrients like the B vitamins, choline, and methionine.
An epigenetic event like DNA methylation, which is important in maintaining the formation of neurons in different parts of the brain, is influenced by folic acid (vitamin B9), vitamin C, D, and E. Defects in DNA methylation have been identified with Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Huntington’s disease.
Another epigenetic event is histone modification, which is influenced by vitamin C, D, E, omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, and resveratrol. Problems with histone modification are associated with mental retardation, autism and schizophrenia. A diet rich in these nutrients, such as the Mediterranean diet, can help preserve brain structure and function.
A night of poor sleep spells a day of trouble for most people, simply because of lethargy and fatigue. For cognitive tasks, its immediate effects are decreased attention and decline in executive-control functions. Sleep deprivation has more profound effects on young adults than in older adults. Prolonged sleep deprivation is also related to increase in blood pressure, evening cortisol levels, insulin, pro-inflammatory cell messengers, and sympathetic tone. In addition, it has been proven that poor sleep elevates the biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease.
A good “normal” night's sleep promotes memory stabilization and integration. Memory stabilization is like the autosave feature of a Microsoft Word document when the computer loses power—the brain is able to encode and consolidate individual memories as we sleep. This helps us have new insights and promotes creativity.
Chronic psychological distress is also related to cognitive decline. Psychological distress refers to negative emotions like depression, anxiety, anger, and shame. People with chronic stress have been shown to have higher incidence of Alzheimer’s disease and faster decline of cognitive functioning, especially for episodic memory. Stress management can vary from meditation and mindfulness to physical exercise and diet.
Personalized Brain Care
With the dawn of personalized medicine, patient care has become more individualized. Increasingly, a holistic approach is favored in preventing and treating illnesses. A person who wishes to boost brain activity should consider adhering to the Mediterranean diet, do aerobic exercise for at least 20 minutes daily, maintain good muscle mass through resistance training like bodyweight exercises, and get regular checkups to monitor anything that may cause more systemic inflammation. Stress management is a must. Reading, writing for pleasure, and playing an instrument are mentally stimulating cognitive tasks and should be maintained; therefore always be productive!
Living a life in solitude is also detrimental to brain health. Attending church, doing volunteer work, and spending time with family and friends are social engagements and can reduce the risk of dementia and mental impairment. Humans are social beings and meaningful connections to others can give us a boost in mood and in overall brain health.
If you would like to explore your own personalized plans, visit us at Aegle Wellness Center. Set an appointment by email at email@example.com or call +63.2.737.0077.