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Enriching the Mind

We know there are concrete steps we can take to improve our physical health and prevent or decrease the chances of developing certain illnesses. This is true for our mental health as well.

To keep our minds fit, we need to follow the same key strategies for keeping our bodies healthy: get regular physical exercise and eat a healthy diet. In addition, we need to engage in activities designed to ‘exercise’ and ‘nourish’ our brains.

Get Physical

“Of all the lifestyle habits that may protect your brain health, the scientific evidence is most compelling for the effects of regular physical conditioning,” says Gary Small, M.D., Director of the UCLA Longevity Center in his book The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program. “Recent research shows that people who engage in moderate physical activity have a 40 percent lower risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease.”

Small cites a Harvard study of more than 18,000 women which found that walking briskly for a total of 90 minutes a week – about 15 minutes per day – was enough to delay cognitive decline and reduce possible risk for future Alzheimer’s disease.

Physical activity causes the heart to pump more blood, which reaches all the body’s muscles and organs — including the brain. Increased blood flow in the brain appears to reverse cellular deterioration associated with aging.

Aerobic activity isn’t the only type of physical activity to positively affect the brain. Strength training also seems to promote brain function by increasing the heart’s efficiency in supplying blood to the brain and boosting specific brain functions involving complex reasoning and attention skills. Balance training also shows benefits to memory and other cognitive abilities.

Choose Food Wisely

“What we eat affects our mental function and may be critical to maintaining brain health,” says Dr. Small.

A healthy diet benefits both the body and the brain by helping to keep inflammation in check. Although inflammation is usually a health-promoting process, chronic inflammation fuels many age-related illnesses, including cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Health-promoting foods such as fruits, vegetables, fish, whole grains, and legumes fight inflammation, as do many herbs and spices.

Lawrence C. Katz, Ph.D., a professor of neurobiology at Duke University, says “brain exercise” can help develop new connections in the brain. “The mental decline most people experience is not due to the steady death of nerve cells,” he says in an American Psychological Association publication article. Rather, the cause is atrophy of connections between nerve cells in the brain. Routine behaviors can contribute to this atrophy, while novel experiences can help strengthen neural connections.

Train Your Brain

Just as the body needs exercise, so does the brain. Learning stimulates the growth of new brain cells. By challenging the brain, we can increase the number of brain cells and grow the number of connections between those cells. The key is to keep the stimulation varied. So while it’s good to exercise your brain by doing crossword puzzles, for example, you should combine that with different types of mental challenges such as Sudoku or other brain teasers. Taking classes and learning new skills are also ways to “exercise” the brain.

“Practicing basic memory methods sharpens memory capacity, slows age-related decline and helps maintain peak memory function,” says Small. His research at UCLA has found that using simple memory techniques can activate and strengthen specific neural circuits in the area of the brain involved with memory processing.

“As we learn memory enhancement skills, neural activity increases as the brain recruits neighboring circuits to solve tasks,” says Small. “With practice, the brain develops more efficient strategies for both learning and recall.”

Reduce Stress

Constant stress releases cortisol in the brain, which weakens memory. Meditation can reduce harmful stress hormones by shifting the focus of our attention. Lack of sleep can cause stress, while getting adequate sleep reduces chronic inflammation, improves memory and helps us to be more resilient in dealing with stressful events.

Reach Out to Others

Establishing and maintaining relationships with others is another way to help the brain. “Social interactions boost cognitive ability,” says Dr. Small. “Becoming and staying socially engaged may reduce your risk for dementia by as much as 60 percent.”

Having or finding a purpose can also help us stay sharp. A Rush University Medical Center study of more than 950 older adults found that those who had clear intentions and goals were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s over the subsequent seven years.

Research from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that engaging in volunteer activities may boost brain function. Researchers found that after six months of volunteering, the participants demonstrated significant increases in brain activity in regions important to cognitive function.

Keeping the mind fit should be a lifelong priority, and is a pursuit that can greatly influence the quality of our lives in our later years. The Healthy Brain Initiative, a project sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and the Alzheimer’s Association to promote cognitive health, makes a great argument for maintaining good mental health: “Having a clear, active mind at any age is important, but as we get older it can mean the difference between dependent and independent living.”

Nancy Sokoler Steiner Nancy Sokoler Steiner is a freelance writer and author based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and Lifestyles Magazine, among other publications.

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