The brain is a fascinating organ. It helps us grow both physically and mentally, protects us, and runs a multitude of biological functions every second of every day. It literally keeps us alive without us … well, even having to think about it.
All that said, it’s troubling how much our brains are on overload in the twenty-first century. With more information inundating us at lightning speed, more multitasking required, more worries, less downtime, and longer life spans, it’s fair to ask: Are we burning out our brains? And what can we do to improve our brain health?
It’s been said that you are what you eat—and that’s especially true when it comes to your brain. Studies have shown that certain foods are linked to positive cognitive outcomes; in fact, one diet, the MIND Diet, is dedicated entirely to this concept. Color-rich fruits and veggies such as blueberries, strawberries, kale, and spinach—all full of flavonoids—are particularly good at staving off your brain’s decline, so make them part of your daily diet!
Other foods that are believed to help brain health include nuts, fish, olive oil, and whole grains. And don’t deprive yourself of wine, which has also been shown to aid brain function—when drank in moderation, of course. And take heart, coffee lovers: coffee has also been linked to decreased incidence of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Plus, eating right improves your overall health, which can benefit your brain. For example, having high levels of bad cholesterol, high blood pressure, prediabetes, or diabetes is associated with greater risk for cognitive problems later in life, so eating healthier can help you stave off these conditions or control them and lengthen your mental clarity.
Ample evidence shows that mental focus is a challenge for many Americans in today’s digital age. According to research, we touch our smartphones over 2,600 times per day on average, and it’s thought that our attention span has shrunk to eight seconds.
For people with mental decline, such as memory loss or forgetfulness, this is an even bigger issue. If you or someone you know is struggling with it, testing memory—even during simple conversations—can be beneficial. Ask about events or people from the past, for instance, with follow-up questions to keep the memory retrieval going. Or you can go the opposite route: research shows that when older people learn a new skill, it can help improve their cognitive ability. So much for old dogs and new tricks.
Want to keep your own mind active and strengthen your cognitive abilities? Science says there are many fun ways you can do so:
- Play strategy-dependent games like checkers, chess, or cards.
- Do a puzzle.
- Listen to music, which stimulates creativity.
- Challenge yourself to brain-sharpening games on a site like Lumosity.
- Expand your vocabulary by learning new words every day on a site like Merriam-Webster.
- Read a book.
- Learn a new skill, like how to play a musical instrument, make a recipe, or master a language.
You love going to the gym because of how it benefits your body—but did you know that your workout can also have great benefits for your mind?
Think about it on a basic level. How do you feel about yourself when you’re exercising on a regular basis? Getting in that good sweat helps release stress while improving your mood, self-esteem, and even sleeping—all of which help your mind as well as your body.
But the benefits are also achieved on the molecular level. Recent studies indicate that, because exercise increases heart rate and breathing, the brain gets more oxygen, which can help hold off dementia and improve cognition. In addition, getting moving on a regular basis can also help promote brain cell and brain vessel growth, which can lead to better memory. Likewise, learning fun physical activities, such as new dance moves, can help keep the brain sharp.
We all know how wonderful it is to get a good, restful night’s sleep (especially after a workout). It allows your brain and body to recharge, resulting in more energy, a better mood, and better clarity and memory. However, if you’re like one-third of Americans who get less than six hours of shut-eye, sleep deprivation problems can be plentiful—from the frustrating to the severe.
There are the obvious symptoms of brain drain that we all experience at one point or another: grogginess, crankiness, and difficulty thinking critically. And if you miss an entire night’s sleep? That can have the same effects as being drunk.
But physiologically, sleep deprivation can also cause long-term damage to the brain. For example, while we rest, our brains clean themselves of what’s accumulated during our waking hours, including brain-specific protein deposits, which, if they build up in the brain, can lead to an earlier onset of conditions like Alzheimer’s.
Research suggests that getting consistent, high-quality sleep may hold up or slow the progression of such conditions. So make sure you get the recommended seven or more hours of sleep each night—the health benefits to your brain can be immense.
The brain is the hard drive of our existence: an organ that’s constantly retrieving, analyzing, and storing information while keeping everything else in the body running smoothly. And, much like we monitor our computers to ensure they are operating at peak efficiency, we should make simple lifestyle changes to maximize our brain’s health and potential.
Mind-Blowing Brain Facts
- Even though it only weighs about three pounds, the human brain uses about 20 percent of the body’s oxygen.
- The brain contains over 85 billion neurons.
- Brain cells react to alcohol in a mere six minutes.
- Your brain uses twelve calories per hour at rest.
- Your brain’s electricity can light a light bulb.
- It’s believed that humans have about 70,000 thoughts per day.
- Half your brain can be removed without you experiencing personality or memory problems.
- Brain function starts declining before age twenty-five.
- Brains have no pain receptors—hence while people can be awake during brain surgery.
- Information can travel to and from the brain at over 260 miles per hour.