I recently chatted with Dr Sarah McKay an Oxford University-educated neuroscientist, science writer, and the creator of neuroscience blog Your Brain Health – www.yourbrainhealth.com.au. Sarah is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to understanding our brains better. I am delighted to share with you her top ten tactics for improving our brain health and wellness.
Thank you Sarah!
‘I’m delighted that Kate invited me to write a guest blog post for her today.
Over on my blog I break down neuroscience research into simple, actionable steps to improve brain health and wellbeing. I have a passion for evidence-based medicine, the scientific method, and connection and conversation. This means that I try to make it easy to understand the best available neuroscience and clinical eviden
ce on brain health. I write about neuroscience and how the latest findings relate to our everyday lives. There’s no scientific jargon, no tricky-to-understand data—just simple explanations of the evidence.
Just as a quick note for readers of this blog, I mostly write about the adult brain and even touch a little on brain aging and dementia risk reduction. But much of the research is common sense, and applies to children too’.
Your brain is not hard-wired. The connections —synapses— between neurons are ‘plastic’ and can change. The changing strength of connections is called neuroplasticity, which underlies learning and memory. When you form new memories you are rewiring your brain. Neuroplasticity is a lifelong process.
The foundation of a healthy brain is a healthy well-nourished body. Neuroscience points towards a Mediterranean-based diet of mostly plants (vegetables, fruit and legumes), fish, some meat, olive oil and nuts as optimal nourishment for brain health. Wine and coffee in moderation (yes, really! Just not for the kids!) prevent cognitive decline and memory loss.
Regular exercise keeps your brain healthy too. Neuroscience shows that people who are the most physically active have a lower chance of developing dementia. Exercise decreases cardio-vascular disease, inflammation and promotes the birth of neurons. Try to get 30 minutes of heart-rate raising exercise, or walk 10,000 steps daily.
Not all stress is bad, but chronic stress and anxiety can change the wiring of our brains. People prone to psychological distress experience brain ‘fuzziness’, are at risk of developing mental health problems, and experience more rapid cognitive decline. Too much cortisol (a stress hormone) prevents the birth of new neurons and causes the hippocampus (the brain structure involved in learning and memory) to shrink, reducing your powers of learning and memory. To de-stress – do something pleasurable. Maybe even learn to meditate. The most pleasure is to be found in doing something you’re reasonably good at and that also poses some degree of challenge.
Having friends and social connections helps you live longer and keeps you healthier. Socialising reduces the harmful effects of stress and involves many cognitive functions such as thinking, feeling, sensing, reasoning and intuition. Mentally stimulating activities build up a reserve of healthy neurons and promote neuroplasticity. Have a good social support network has the equivalent health benefits as giving up smoking!
Sleep is essential to your body’s overall wellness, both physically and emotionally. Sleep improves cognitive function and psychomotor performance (the brain telling the body to move). Even a brief afternoon nap considerably enhances short-term memory and mood. Memories cannot become consolidated in your brain without sleep. Adults should aim for 8 hours a night, but more can slow your cognition. Teenagers need just as much sleep as toddlers!
Not all forgetting is bad. Your brain forgets information it doesn’t need so you can focus on what information you need to retain. Pay attention to what you want to remember. Practice focussing on tasks, and structure activities so you can mindfully attend to each step. Paying attention when we form a new memory transfers it from short-term to long-term storage.
Always losing your keys or forgetting dates? Organise your life and help your brain to remember. Use external memory aids such as sticky notes, calendars, or smart phone alerts. Nominate a place to leave your keys. Stop leaving your memory to chance. Emotional memories are the strongest — link names and faces with vibrant stories you tell yourself (in your own mind!).
Adults who regularly challenge their minds and stay mentally active throughout life have healthier brains. Think about trying activities that combine mental, social and physical components. Mental activity should be regular, reasonably complex, and varied – doing the odd crossword is not enough. Your mental activity should involve learning something new. You have the same ability to learn that your children do.
Do extraordinary things! Set fantastic, passionate goals and work like crazy to achieve them. Don’t retire — follow your bliss. Adults who challenge their minds and stay mentally active throughout life have healthier brains. You’ll make memories worth remembering too!
From these 10 simple tactics, what will you do more of to take your brain health to new levels and protect it as best you can, both for you and your family?
Dr Sarah McKay is a kiwi neuroscientist with a PhD from Oxford University. After moving to Australia in search of sunshine she spent five years conducting neuroscience research before deciding to follow her bliss of talking about science rather than doing it. Now, she combines raising her two little boys on Sydney’s Northern Beaches writing for about science, health and medicine, and blogging about neuroscience. On her blog, Sarah specialises in breaking down neuroscience research into simple actionable steps to improve brain health. She blogs about the brain health, interviews neuroscientists, and runs a walking book club at www.yourbrainhealth.com.au. Sarah occasionally writes about medical writing at www.sarahmckay.com.ay