Opinion: 10 steps to a healthy brain

Our population is getting older, the result of a steady decrease in the birth rate and a corresponding increase in life expectancy. During the 20th century, the population aged 65 and older grew faster than the population under 65 and the population as a whole. Over the next 40 years, the number of people older than 65 will double, and the number of those older than 85 will quadruple.

Concern about the possibility of increasing rates of senility probably accounts for the increase in our emphasis for eating healthy “brain” foods and the sale of over-the-counter elixirs that purport to delay dementia. However, writing for Smithsonian, Ruth Sheldon has put together ten common-sense preventive steps that we can take at no expense.

Use it or lose it

Our brain, like the rest of our body, needs regular workouts. But Sheldon writes, “Repeating a familiar routine won’t give your brain the aerobic activity it needs.” She suggests that we try new learning experiences: take piano lessons, learn a foreign language, develop new computer skills. In other words, keep challenging our brain.

Break a sweat

The more active we are, the better. Swimming, power walking, gardening — all activities that help to deliver more blood and oxygen to our brain — stimulate neural connections. The general rule, she says, is that whatever is good for your heart is good for your brain.

Fuel up with brain food

Our usual choices of “healthy” foods, like fruits and vegetables, are good for the brain. But Sheldon adds some “superfood” suggestions: green tea, beans and nuts, and flaxseed oil. Alcohol, however, is not recommended with one cautionary exception. Red wine — one glass a day for women, two glasses for men — may actually improve memory.

Get enough sleep

We need between 7.5 and 9 hours of sleep each night. Sheldon points out: “Even skimping on a few hours for one night can make a difference. Memory, creativity, problem solving, and critical thinking may be compromised the next day.”

She recommends that we avoid big meals and caffeine for at least two hours before we go to bed. She also points out that blue light from TVs, tablets, smart phones, and computer monitors can suppress melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy.

Minimize stress

Although this is easier said than done, we can try to focus on our ability to problem solve rather than dwelling on the negative situations that we encounter. She encourages the use of various therapies, exercise, yoga, meditation, and relaxation techniques.

She points out that “a refreshing nap is a great short-term brain-booster that can clear cobwebs and sharpen your mental powers.”

See a physician regularly

There are many causes of memory loss and lack of clear thinking in addition to dementia. These include diabetes, heart disease, menopause, common medications for colds and allergies, as well as lifestyle issues.

An annual physical examination, including a frank and honest discussion with your physician, can help to identify symptoms so that early intervention can be attempted.

Maintain friendships

We are social animals; it’s in our DNA. Sheldon states that some researchers believe that “sound social interactions may be the best kind of brain therapy of all.” People who lead an active social life tend to have the slowest rate of memory loss. She emphasizes, “Conversely, a significant lack of social activity can damage the brain as much as smoking or heavy drinking.”

She counsels us to enjoy life, cherish our friends, and have fun.

Read more fiction

Sheldon believes that we should watch less TV and spend the time reading a good book. She points out that a recent article in the Journal of Brain Connectivity suggests that reading a novel “can improve brain function on a variety of levels.” Reading stimulates the use of imagination. It gives us cause to put ourselves in the place of other people, perhaps seeing things from their point of view. She says that this is similar to “developing muscle memory in sports.”

Protect the brain from abuse

The common methods of “abusing the brain” are using drugs, smoking cigarettes, and drinking alcohol to excess. I can pass along some personal experience with regard to one of these negative practices. First, though, I should reveal that I never got into the drug scene — not even in the turbulent 1960’s or the carry-over 1970’s. But, I was a smoker.

I started smoking cigarettes regularly when I was 13. However, I was able to quit “cold turkey” when I was 30. It was very easy to quit. I had one-third of my right lung surgically removed. I don’t recommend this method of quitting, but it’s certainly effective.

I began to understand how addictive nicotine is when I started having nightmares about resuming the practice of smoking. These nightmares continued for about a decade. I’ve never had any other type of nightmare, and once the Oh-no!-I’ve-blown-it nightmares stopped, they were gone forever.

If you are abusing your brain with excessive alcohol use or these or other substances, I implore you to seek some resolution and not wait until you face the choice that I had with cigarettes: stop or die.

Take a break from the Internet

This is the only “step” that surprised me. Sheldon says that when Nicholas Carr wrote his book, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” he zeroed in on an issue that neuroscientists are currently studying.

Sheldon writes, “As we increasingly use and depend on the Internet’s bounties… we’re becoming lazier and changing our brain in ways that sacrifice our ability to concentrate and think deeply.”

She advises, “Take an Internet break for at least a few hours every day to give your brain a chance to focus without interruption, and do some creative thinking.”

Sheldon thinks that if we take these ten steps, we’ll be happier and so will our brains. I tend to agree, although I eat frozen dinners most nights and can’t remember the last time, if ever, that I have had eight hours of uninterrupted sleep on a regular basis.

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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.