Brain health refers to the maintenance of optimal brain integrity and mental and cognitive function at a given age. It enables us to enhance our psychological, cognitive, emotional and behavioral functioning.
What Is Brain Health?
Also known as cognitive health, brain health marks a person’s ability to function normally in different spheres of life, such as professional, social and personal aspects, on a daily basis. From decision making to solving problems, from communicating with ease to tackling various moments in life, every little action and move in life is defined by the health of our brain. Mind Help explains that it is defined as “a person’s ability to perform well in his/her daily life, health and work along with taking the right decision, communicating effectively with others, maintaining an emotional balance, and solving problems.”
According to a 2016 study 1 , cognition plays a key role in maintaining overall good health and cognitive impairment can lead to significant challenges for an individual. “Cognition (the ability to learn, solve problems, remember, and appropriately use stored information) is a key to successful health and aging,” explains the study. The researchers believe that maintaining cognitive health is not just important for the individual, but also for the society. This comparatively new and emerging concept in the sphere of psychology includes neural development, plasticity, functioning, and recovery across the life course. Various inter-related social and biological factors influence brain development and brain health from pre-conception through the end of life. These determinants affect the way our brains grow, adapt, and respond to stress and difficulty, thus enabling us to come up with strategies for both promotion and prevention across the life course.
Understanding Brain Health
Even before a baby leaves his/her mother’s womb, the brain system starts functioning which impacts the rest of our life. It controls one’s body functions and helps them understand and interact with the surrounding world. According to a 2008 study, the human brain develops quickly in the first years of life. While at birth, the brain is only 25% the size of an adult’s brain, by the age of 5, the brain already reaches ‘90% of the adult size’. Thus with brain development, notable changes occur in the child’s ability to observe, think, and act in the world. Therefore, maintaining a healthy brain will enable one to stay clear and active, so that one can continue his/her work, rest, and play. In other words, the concept of brain health is all about reducing risk factors, keeping one’s memory active, and getting the very best out of the brain as the person gets older.
Brain Health Conditions
It must be noted that brain health conditions can occur throughout our life course and it is marked by disturbances in normal brain growth or brain functioning. They may exhibit neurodevelopmental and neurological conditions such as –
- Autism spectrum disorders
- Intellectual developmental disorders
- Cerebral palsy
- Cerebrovascular disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Parkinson’s disease
- Brain tumours
- Traumatic injury
- Neurological disorders resulting from malnutrition
As per the data revealed by WHO 2, the global burden of neurological and neurodevelopmental conditions has grown. Almost, 70% of the burden prevails in low- and middle-income countries. Neurological conditions are also becoming the leading cause of disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) and the second preeminent cause of death globally, accounting for 9 million deaths per year. The four largest contributors of neurological DALYs in 2016 were –
- Stroke (42.2%)
- Migraine (16.3%)
- Dementia (10.4%)
- Meningitis (7.9%)
While epilepsy (5%) ranked fifth, Parkinson’s disease has propelled by an increasingly large aging population and it is the fastest-growing neurological disorder. Developmental disabilities accounted for 13.3% of the 29.3 million YLDs (Years Lived with Disability) for all health conditions among children younger than 5 years in 2016. Despite the large burden posed by brain health conditions, only 28% of low-income countries have a dedicated policy for neurological diseases in comparison with 64% of high-income countries. Available resources for these conditions are insufficient in most countries and the treatment gap for many neurological and neurodevelopmental conditions is unacceptably high.
Health and social care for these conditions require multisectoral and interdisciplinary collaborations. Such collaborations must be conducted with a holistic person-centered approach focused on promotion, prevention, treatment, care, and rehabilitation over the lifespan. It must also include the active engagement of individuals experiencing the conditions and their families and carers, as appropriate.
Six Pillars Of Brain Health
To begin with, the brain is a complicated organ and has at least three levels of functions that affect all aspects of our daily lives. These are the analysis of senses and direction of movement, preservation of cognitive, mental, and emotional processes, and maintenance of healthy behavior and social cognition.
Human lifestyle or their way of living leaves a huge impact on brain health. Starting from what we eat and drink to how we sleep, exercise, and socialize along with managing stress, every little move defines human brain health. Thus, here are the six pillars for our brain health, which if practiced meticulously, will help maintain our brain health.
1. Physical Exercise
Maintaining a regular pattern of exercise at home or gym reduces the risk of various cognitive impairments. According to a 2006 study 3 , “Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function.” Multiple conditions may negatively affect our brain health regardless of age. However, post 70 years of age, nearly 16% of people suffer mild cognitive impairment (MCI), and 14% experience dementia. About two-thirds of individuals with dementia have Alzheimer’s disease (AD), either alone or in combination with other diseases. With regular exercise, blood flow will increase to the brain, thus enhancing memory. It stimulates chemical changes in the brain that enhance learning, mood, and thinking.
”The argument that physical activity can positively affect cognitive functioning is a powerful one. This has been used to advocate for more physical activity in schools, as well as in older adults to ameliorate or prevent cognitive decline” says a 2016 study 4 . The study observed that exercise enhanced cognitive functioning, especially for tasks involving more complex executive functioning. It was found that physical exercise was associated with 28% risk reduction for dementia and 45% risk reduction for Alzheimer’s disease.
According to a study, one can practice regular workout sessions the following way.
- Engage in a 30-minute workout session regularly
- Split the workout into different activities such as walking, dancing, swimming, yoga, gardening, riding a bike, etc.
- Exercise with a friend for social stimulation
- Indulge in an activity that involves brain activity as well
2. Food And Nutrition
‘Although food has classically been perceived as a means to provide energy and building material to the body, its ability to prevent and protect against diseases is starting to be recognized’ says a 2010 study 5 . According to the study, dietary factors influence specific molecular systems and mechanisms that sustain cognitive function. For instance, a diet that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids is shown to enhance cognitive processes in humans. On the other hand, a diet high in saturated fat has shown reducing molecular substrates that support cognitive processing while raising the risk of neurological dysfunction in both humans and animals. It must be noted that as we grow older, our brain is revealed to more pressure due to lifestyle and environmental factors. This leads to a process called oxidation, which damages brain cells.
As per a study 6, here are some nutrition factors that people must follow to maintain their brain health:
A. Reduce Saturated and “Trans” Fats
Avoid dairy foods such as ice cream, butter & cheese, and red meats to stay away from saturated fats. Consume less fried food and processed food products like cookies, crackers, and pastries with a long shelf life to avoid trans fat. Additionally, optimize omega 3 fats and limit omega 6 fats for better health.
B. Follow a Plant-Based Diet
Make whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts the major part of your diet.
C. Maximize Dietary Sources
Increase the consumption of vitamins B12, D, and E to support nerve and brain health. For example, consume salmon, nuts, spinach, avocados, and low-fat milk or fortified juice for dietary vitamin D.
D. Drink More Water
Stay well-hydrated by consuming 8 glasses of water per day.
E. Alcohol in Moderation
Contrary to popular beliefs, alcohol consumption is not necessarily unhealthy. Light to moderate use of alcohol every day may protect brain health (1 serving per day for women, up to 2 for men).
Read More About Nutrition And Brain Health Here
3. Medical Health
Conditions like diabetes, hypertension, obesity, head trauma, depression, higher cholesterol, and smoking increase the risk of dementia. One must control and reduce these risks. People must get engaged in the annual check-up and follow up with the doctor. Ask for recommendations if any health issue crops up and take medications as prescribed. One must follow a brain-healthy lifestyle for the wellbeing of the body and the mind.
According to the study, here are the types of medications that one must avoid to foster better brain health.
These medicines prevent the transmitter of acetylcholine. Such medicines are used to treat diseases like asthma, incontinence, intestinal cramping, mood, muscle spasms, and sleep disorders. Examples of such medicines include cyclobenzaprine, dicyclomine, benztropine, oxybutynin, diphenhydramine, belladonna alkaloids, amitriptyline, etc.
These are attached to the GABA receptor, the main inhibitory neurotransmitter, that is responsible for slowing things down. While the medicine helps with anxiety and improves sleep, it also increases the risk for falls, impaired cognition/memory. Plus, these medicines vary in potency, and some can lead to dependence and adverse withdrawal symptoms. Examples of such medicines are triazolam, lorazepam, chlordiazepoxide clorazepate, midazolam, alprazolam, diazepam, temazepam, clonazepam, flurazepam.
C. Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)
These are commonly used to treat pain related to osteoarthritis and degenerative joint disease. Examples include ibuprofen, meloxicam, etodolac, naproxen, indomethacin. However, one must consider using acetaminophen (APAP) for chronic pain. It is preferred, first-line treatment for mild to moderate pain, where inflammation is not an issue.
4. Sleep And Relaxation
Sound sleep energizes individuals and makes us feel fresh, both mentally and physically. It improves one’s mood and immune system. Sleep also reduces the buildup of an abnormal protein called beta-amyloid plaque in the brain which is linked with Alzheimer’s disease. Brain exercises such as meditation and yoga help in controlling stress while repelling age-related deterioration of brain health.
Study states that factual memories are connected to slow sleep and more complex memories establish themselves in REM sleep. To foster sound sleep at night, here are a few tips that one can follow on a regular basis.
- Curate rituals that will help you feel relaxed every night before bed, be it a warm bath, eating a light snack, meditation, or light reading.
- Wake up at the same time every morning, even on weekends or holidays.
- Avoid taking naps in between if possible or you can take a nap for 20 minutes or less. Don’t nap after 3 p.m.
- If you are not asleep within 20 mins, get out of bed. Instead, engage in an activity that will relax your mind, be it reading or meditating. Go back to bed when you feel sleepy again.
- Avoid TV, laptop, or mobile phones in bed at night as that is the time when you should only sleep.
5. Mental Fitness
Along with physical activity, mental exercise is equally essential to keep the brain fit and healthy. Mental exercise enhances one’s brain’s functioning and fosters new brain cell growth, thus, reducing the chances of developing dementia.
6. Social Interaction
Maintaining an active social life can defend one against memory loss. Spending time with friends, family, and relatives, engaging in interesting conversations, and staying in touch and connected with close ones are good for one’s brain health.
Neurological Disorder And Brain Health
Brain is one of the hardest working organs in the body and it’s healthy, it functions quickly and automatically. However, when problems occur, the results can be devastating. According to a study 7 , some 100 million Americans suffer from disastrous brain disorders at some point in their lives. The major types of disorders include –
- Neurogenetic diseases (such as Huntington’s disease and muscular dystrophy)
- Developmental disorders (such as cerebral palsy)
- Degenerative diseases of adult life (such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease)
- Metabolic diseases (such as Gaucher’s disease)
- Cerebrovascular diseases (such as stroke and vascular dementia)
- Trauma (such as spinal cord and head injury)
- Convulsive disorders (such as epilepsy)
- Infectious diseases (such as AIDS dementia)
- Brain tumors
According to a study 8 , in 2015, 47 million people were living with dementia and this number is predicted to triple by 2050. Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 60%-70% of all cases. These statistics are alarming, given 35% –40% of cases may be preventable and could be attributed to ‘modiﬁable factors’ 9 . Diet and physical activity represent modiﬁable factors that may delay and prevent the progression of AD. Knowing more about the brain can lead to the development of new treatments for diseases and disorders of the nervous system and improve many areas of human health.
Multiple Ways To Maintain Brain Health
Here are the various to maintain brain health, even though the process of aging.
1. Practice Mentally Stimulating Activity
To keep the brain young and active, it is essential to engage in mentally stimulating activity, just like we do for our body. Mental activities incite new connections 10 between nerve cells and may even help the brain generate new cells. This way it helps in building “plasticity” and functional reserve that protects against any future loss of cells. Activities like solving puzzles, riddles, math problems, or even drawing, painting, and other crafts can help in maintaining brain health.
2. Commit to Physical Fitness
Make exercise a part of your daily routine as a regular workout helps in developing tiny blood vessels. This, in turn, brings oxygen-rich blood to the part of the brain that helps us to think. Exercise also helps in the development of new nerve cells and increases the connections between brain cells. Thus, the brain becomes more efficient, plastic, and adaptive, which exhibits better performance even while aging. Regular workout controls blood pressure, enhances cholesterol levels, improves blood sugar balance, and reduces mental stress, all of which can keep your brain and heart-healthy.
3. Go Green, Eat Fresh
Consuming nutritious food can help your body stay healthy. Introduce lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, unsaturated oils (olive oil), and plant-based proteins that will shield your brain against any cognitive impairment.
4. Make Lifestyle Modifications
High blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol, all can lead to cognitive decline in old age, with symptoms showing up in midlife. Thus, before it is too late, embrace lifestyle modifications to keep such conditions under control or at bay. If you have blood pressure issues, exercise regularly, limit your alcohol consumption, reduce stress, and eat right. If you have diabetes, stay away from sweet eatables along with a few vegetables and fruits that can further increase your diabetes. Additionally, make sure to work out daily with medication to control your blood sugar levels. In the case of cholesterol, apart from diet and exercise, avoid tobacco to improve your cholesterol levels.
5. Limit Alcohol Consumption
While excess drinking may lead to various mental health disorders, consuming alcohol in moderation on a regular basis tends to keep the brain active and heart-healthy.
6. Love Your Health And Emotions
Eating, drinking & sleeping are the three secrets that will not only keep you physically healthy but will also take care of your mental health. A sleep-deprived person is often a victim of various cognitive impairments. A good 8 hours of sleep, however, keeps the brain active and alert. Additionally, it also helps one to express his/her true emotions, thus enabling the person to communicate better with others. Apart from that, staying hydrated, eating healthy, and regular exercise together increase the cognitive score, thus maintaining brain health through old age as well.
7. Keep Calm And Build Connections
Maintaining a strong social network and communicating with your close ones on a regular basis lowers the risk of dementia, lowers blood pressure, and expands life expectancy. Build contacts with individuals with a positive that will, in turn, keep you stress-free and keep your brain healthy.
Read More About How To Improve Brain Health Here
Healthy Brain Equals Healthy Life
Brain health is important and is probably the only element that decides the rest of our lives. The single most essential factor that determines our health is the quality of the decisions that we make every day. Thus, it is essential to know our brain health and one must take all the necessary steps to improve the same. One must avoid anything that may end up hurting the brain.
Brain Health At A Glance
- Brain health is the maintenance of optimal brain integrity and mental and cognitive function at a given age.
- It enables us to enhance our psychological, cognitive, emotional and behavioral functioning.
- The concept of brain health is all about reducing risk factors, keeping one’s memory active, and getting the very best out of the brain as the person gets older.
- Brain health conditions can occur throughout our life course and it is marked by disturbances in normal brain growth or brain functioning.
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- Brain health. (2020, June 3). WHO | World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/health-topics/brain-health
- Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for mental health. Primary care companion to the Journal of clinical psychiatry, 8(2), 106. https://doi.org/10.4088/pcc.v08n0208a
- Biddle S. (2016). Physical activity and mental health: evidence is growing. World psychiatry : official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), 15(2), 176–177. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20331
- Gómez-Pinilla F. (2008). Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function. Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 9(7), 568–578. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2421
- Guide for mental health. Sutter Health | Doctors and Hospitals | Northern California. https://www.sutterhealth.org/pdf/incentive-content/brain-health-guide.pdf
- Brain basics: Know your brain. (2020). National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke | National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Know-Your-Brain
- Baranowski, B. J., Marko, D. M., Fenech, R. K., Yang, A. J., & MacPherson, R. E. (2020). Healthy brain, healthy life: A review of diet and exercise interventions to promote brain health and reduce Alzheimer’s disease risk. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 45(10), 1055-1065. https://doi.org/10.1139/apnm-2019-0910
- Mohammadnezhad, M., Mangum, T., May, W., Jeffrey Lucas, J., & Ailson, S. (2016). Common modifiable and non-modifiable risk factors of cardiovascular disease (CVD) among Pacific countries. World Journal of Cardiovascular Surgery, 06(11), 153-170. https://doi.org/10.4236/wjcs.2016.611022
- Harvard Health Publishing. (2020). 12 ways to keep your brain young. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/12-ways-to-keep-your-brain-young