What is brain health and why is it important?
Unfortunately, most people don’t start thinking about their brain health until they notice some cognitive changes and memory loss in their 60s or 70s. Brain health is a critical piece of your overall health. It underlies your ability to communicate, make decisions, problem-solve and live a productive and useful life. The human brain is the command center for the nervous system and enables thoughts, memory, movement, and emotions by a complex function that is the highest product of biological evolution.
Since the brain controls so much of daily function, it is arguably the single most valuable organ in the human body. The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the need for physical, psychological, and social wellbeing, while social confinements have increased digital connectivity that could lead to new avenues in fostering brain health. Recent progress in brain simulation and artificial intelligence provides a vital tool to understand biological brains, and vice versa.
How do you know if your brain is unhealthy?
Most of the real problems you have with your brain are not noticeable! Do you ever notice whether your concentration and focus are consistently on point? Whether your memory has been steadily declining? Most likely not. Here are some symptoms that indicate your brain is unhealthy:
- Poor memory
Most people attribute having a bad memory to getting older. Like it is a normal, healthy thing for your mental acuity to decline. That is not true! If your memory is not as good as it was 10 years ago, it may be a sign that your brain health is not good.
- Too distracted
There are two mental conditions that are growing rapidly in the world: Attention deficit disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). These conditions are associated with low activity in the frontal cortex, the area responsible for higher cognitive function and decision making.
- Waking up tired: If you’re getting a full night’s sleep but often wake up feeling tired, you could be suffering from obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). This happens when you have multiple episodes of waking up in the middle of the night because of a lack of oxygen to the brain.
- Loss of appetite: When we’re eating less or less hungry than usual, it might not ring any alarm bells—maybe we need to take off that extra five pounds—but a loss of appetite can be a sneaky symptom of depression or anxiety disorder.
- Repetitive thoughts: If you’re plagued by repetitive gloomy thoughts, find yourself replaying a negative experience in your head, you could be experiencing depression or chronic anxiety.
- Being overweight or obese: Yes, believe it or not, obesity or being overweight can have a profound effect on your brain. A third of Americans are affected by obesity and being overweight. Being obese not only shrinks the size of your brain, as research has shown. But it also creates changes at the genetic level by affecting the way your genes are expressed.
5 Ways to Keep Your Brain Healthy
Every brain changes with age, and mental function changes along with it. Mental decline is common, and it’s one of the most feared consequences of aging. But cognitive impairment is not inevitable. Here are 5 ways you can help maintain brain function:
Get regular exercise:
Engage in regular cardiovascular exercise that elevates your heart rate and increases blood flow to the brain and body. Several studies have found an association between physical activity and reduced risk of cognitive decline.
Control your risk for heart problems:
Evidence shows that risk factors for cardiovascular disease and stroke — obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes — negatively impact your cognitive health. Take care of your heart, and your brain just might follow.
Manage your blood sugar levels:
Nutrition is extremely important to brain health. High blood sugar can increase your risk for dementia, even without diabetes. So avoid highly sweetened foods like sodas and candy. (https://wa-health.kaiserpermanente.org/keep-brain-healthy-age/)
Reduce or stop using certain medications:
Talk to your doctor about your medication — both prescription and nonprescription. For brain health, you want to avoid dangerous interactions or being over-medicated.
Limit stress and get the sleep you need: Stress and its associated hormone cortisol can, over time, cause an inflammatory response that leads to the formation of free radicals that may damage normal brain functions. Develop tools to get through stressful moments, like breathing exercises, journaling, or yoga. You also need to give your brain ample rest. A key way to keep your brain working is to shut it off for 7-9 hours a night. New research shows that during sleep, the brain clears out toxins called beta-amyloids that can lead to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.