The Neuroscience of Wellness
The secret to a healthy brain may not be so secret at all. Most everyone would like to see enhanced memory and cognitive abilities in their daily lives. Who doesn’t want to be able to remember the names and faces of new people they meet, remember important facts, and improve their problem solving skills? However, one concern that many people have is whether or not their cognitive functions will decrease as they age. The answer might not come in expensive supplements or other intelligence-enhancing products. Scientific studies have shown that one great way to enhance cognitive abilities may simply be to move more.
How Our Brains Work
Our brain is built up of neurons, which make up the connections that our brain uses to process information. Basically, neurons are how we think. Scientists used to think that we were born with all the neurons we would have, and we slowly lost those neurons over time. While many neurons in our brain cannot recover from damage, neurons can develop new connections and even regrow in certain areas of the brain (Cotman, Berchtold, & Christie, 2007).
The Aging Brain & Physical Activity
As we age, our brain size normally decreases, and specific areas related to memory may suffer as a result. Studies have suggested that a person’s brain size can increase in size if they engage in regular physical activity. This proved to be consistent even when taking into account the age of a person. A bigger brain generally means a healthier and smarter brain. Combatting the decrease in brain size that comes with aging with regular physical activity, a person might help prevent the effects of aging in their brain (Wendell, Gunstad, Waldstein, Wright, Ferrucci, & Zonderman, 2013).
The Mayo Clinic suggests that keeping physically active may:
- Keep thinking, reasoning and learning skills sharp for healthy individuals
- Improve memory, reasoning, judgment and thinking skills (cognitive function) for people with mild Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment
- Delay the start of Alzheimer’s for people at risk of developing the disease or slow the progress of the disease (Petersen, 2014)
What Can I Do to Maintain a Healthy Brain?
So what does this all mean for our brain health?
First of all, it means that the activities we engage in affect our brain. Whether or not we engage in physical activity affects the size of our brain, which has been linked to cognitive ability. It means that if we neglect physical activity, our brains may suffer, but it also means that our brains respond quickly when we start engaging in healthier behaviors.
To preserve and protect brain health, follow these suggestions:
- Incorporate physical activity into your daily life. It doesn’t matter what you do, but choose an activity you like as you’ll be more likely to stick with it.
- Visit your doctor to take care of any health problems that could keep you from an active lifestyle.
- Pay attention to your mental health and seek help when needed. Be aware of common signs and symptoms that may warrant attention, such as changes in eating or sleeping habits, and pulling away from people and activities.
- Spend time cultivating relationships with family and friends.
- Eat a variety of fresh, whole, and healthy foods to boost memory.
- Live an active life physically, mentally, and socially. It will keep your brain healthy longer, and who doesn’t want that?
For a more in depth look at how physical activity enhances our memory, cognition, and well-being, check out this video with Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki:
1Cotman, C. W., Berchtold, N. C., & Christie, L.-A. (2007). Exercise builds brain health: key roles of growth factor cascades and inflammation. Trends in Neurosciences, 30(9), 464-472.
3 Petersen, R. (2014). Alzheimer's disease. Retrieved July 21, 2014, from Mayo Clinic: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alzheimers-disease/expert-answers/alzheimers-disease/faq-20057881
3 Wendell, C. R., Gunstad, J., Waldstein, S. R., Wright, J. G., Ferrucci, L., & Zonderman, A. B. (2013). Cardiorepiratory Fitness and Accelerated Cognitive Decline with Aging. The Journals of Gerontology, 69(4), 455-462.