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7 Habits for a Healthy Brain

Updated: Apr 4

It's a common mistake to think of intelligence as something that you’re simply born with. Intelligence isn’t a fixed trait. It’s a changeable, flexible ability to learn and stimulate your brain that can improve - or decline - over time. And just as lifestyle choices like diet and exercise impact your physical health, there are also lifestyle choice that affect your brain health.

Thanks to advances in science and technology, we know that the cells we are born with don’t last forever. Typically, our cells have a life span of about 7 years unless they are killed or damaged. For example, we know that an over production of cortisol shrinks brain cells, pierces the cell walls, and eventually kills them. 


Despite common misconceptions, cognitive decline is not an inevitable part of aging. It’s true that the brain changes with age, but just like other parts of the body — your heart, your joints or your skin — taking good care of it along the way can help prevent or delay disease and decline. Recent research estimates that modifiable risk factors, like physical inactivity and diet, account for a significant share of global dementia cases.


It's not secret that our physical health has everything to do with our lifestyle choices. Now we have scientific evidence that we have more control over our brain health than we once thought. Here are 7 habits that will help you keep your brain healthy.






Get a Serotonin Boost


When you feel happy and all seems right with the world, you're feeling the effects of serotonin. It's most commonly associated with mood. It helps to reduce anxiety and depression, regulate our emotions, and contribute to and overall sense of well-being. Think of it like a natural mood stabilizer.


Of the more than 100 billion brain cells between your ears, it's estimated that serotonin impacts just about every single one of them either directly or indirectly. High levels of serotonin have been shown to boost brain function such as memory and learning speed. Studies also show that serotonin enhances our autonomic nervous system, also known as the "fight or flight response."


The brain releases serotonin when we feel significant or important, and most antidepressants are designed to stimulate the production of it. Surprisingly, the brain has trouble distinguishing between past achievements and current ones. Reflecting on a past accomplishment or victory can produce serotonin the same way it does in the moment. Research also correlates the practice of gratitude with serotonin production. Write down three people or things for which you’re grateful to generate a quick boost and a powerful psychological shift. A few minutes in the sunshine can also stimulate serotonin production.


Fire Up Your Playlist


Studies show that there is significant brain power in music. While most of us listen to music for entertainment, we should also know that it can help boost your overall wellbeing. In fact, researchers at Stanford University have even claimed that music seems to be able to affect brain function “to the same extent as medication in many circumstances.”


Music and brain function are inextricably linked. Hearing an old song from high school can transport you back in time before you can even remember the name of the group who sang it. The link between music and memory has been applied to improve language learning and even advance the study of traumatic brain injuries.


One reason why music has such a powerful impact on cognition and memory is because it engages such large areas of the brain. The auditory (temporal lobe), emotional (limbic system), and motor (cerebellum) regions are all activated when the brain processes music. Whether you prefer the classical sounds of Andrea Bocelli or the country croons of Luke Bryan, engage the whole brain with music for deeper cognition and improved creative thought.



Exercise


Move the body and the brain will follow. Exercise plays a key role in fueling the brain with oxygen and promoting the growth of new brain cells. The area of the brain most associated with motor control is the cerebellum. The cerebellum takes up just one-tenth of the brain by volume, but it contains nearly half of all its neurons. This structure, densely packed with neurons, may be the most complex part of the brain.

 

Most of the neural circuits from the cerebellum are “outbound,” influencing the rest of the brain. Also, there is a pathway from the cerebellum that links directly to parts of the brain involved in memory, attention, and spatial perception. Amazingly, the part of the brain that processes movement is the same part of the brain that processes learning.


Approximately 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day, five days a week, has been shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's Disease and cognitive decline. But even a few minutes of whole body activity (climbing stairs, walking around the block, etc.) has been shown to improve overall brain function.


Sleep


Sleep is essential for supporting optimal cognitive function. When you sleep, your brain consolidates memories you created throughout the day. It also enhances your brain’s ability to learn new information when you wake up. In addition, glial cells - or the brain's housekeepers - are only able to come through and sweep away all of the neurotoxins when we are in a deep sleep.


It's why those cheesy late-night infomercials as so effective. If you're not sleeping in the middle of the night, chances are that you're not doing your best thinking.


Reading


Reading isn't just for school. Research shows that reading has numerous physical and mental benefits including strengthening your brain, increasing your ability to empathize, reducing stress, and building your vocabulary, among others.


A growing body of research indicates that reading literally changes your mind. Using MRI brain scans, researchers have found that reading involves a complex network of circuits and signals in the brain. As your reading ability matures, those networks also get stronger and more sophisticated. Reading stimulates every part of your brain, along with the neural connections between them. That’s because it requires multiple cognitive functions, including:

  • attention

  • predicting

  • working memory

  • long-term storage memory

  • abstract reasoning

  • comprehension

  • visual processing of letters

A 2013 study also determined that novels specifically significantly enhances connectivity between brain regions and the effect can last a couple of days after reading, suggesting long-term benefits.


Laughter


Mentally, laughter helps us cope with life by relieving our mental and physical tensions.

Social laughter triggers the release of endorphins – often referred to as “feel good hormones” or natural pain killers – in brain regions responsible for arousal and emotion.

 

In addition, laughter impacts the body by decreasing blood pressure, increasing oxygenation to the brain, and strengthening the immune system. Perhaps the most important benefit of laughter is that it strengthens the human connection.Studies show that we are 30 times more likely to laugh with other people than when we're alone. It’s emotional contagion at work, and what it means is that just seeing or hearing happy people can stimulate the release of happy chemicals in your own brain. 


Social Interaction


We are wired to connect with others. Because socialization generates good chemicals like oxytocin and serotonin, interacting with others stimulates the mind and cognitive function. Since humans are social creatures, connecting with others will enhance your mental fitness. It's especially important as we age. A 2018 study found that maintaining a socially active lifestyle in later life enhances one's cognitive reserve and improves cognitive function.


While it may seem more difficult to meet new people, there are some simple ways to expand your social circle:

  • volunteer in your community

  • join a gym

  • join a book club

  • reconnect with old friends



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