“Science is showing for the first time in 30 years that our brain is the most modifiable part of our body and easiest to strengthen, more than our heart or teeth,” says Sandra Bond Chapman, founder of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas, Dallas.
When it comes to our hearts, even the nonmedical types among us pretty much know what we need to be doing. In a nutshell: exercising and eating right.
But when it comes to our brains, guidelines tend to be foggier. Besides, we figure, since we’re probably as smart as we’ll ever be, what can we possibly do?
Plenty, but let’s start with this reminder: Just because right this second you can’t remember the name of your first-grade teacher, that doesn’t mean your smarts are on the wane. Not by a long shot.
“Science is showing for the first time in 30 years that our brain is the most modifiable part of our body and easiest to strengthen, more than our heart or teeth,” says Sandra Bond Chapman, founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas, Dallas. The center opened a new facility in October: The Brain Performance Institute, which offers scientifically based programs to enhance brain performance and health.
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Although Alzheimer’s now tops heart disease and cancer when it comes to our fear factor about diseases, Chapman says, strengthening your brain is more than decreasing the chance of developing dementia. Instead, it’s about increasing brain health.
Here are tips from Chapman and other experts:
Exercise. This isn’t completely surprising. What, after all, isn’t made better by exercise? Fitness has been linked to a healthier brain in a study by UT Southwestern’s O’Donnell Brain Institute and the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Dallas.
“We think if you have a good cardiovascular fitness level, your heart is stronger and blood supply healthier, and you have a better chance to get enough blood supply for the brain,” says Dr. Kan Ding, a neurologist with the Brain Institute and lead author of the study. “That’s very important for brain health, because the brain is a very unique organ. All the energy it needs is from blood from the rest of the body, so blood supply is very important for the brain.”
The study examined the fitness levels of people who had a high risk for developing dementia by having them walk on a treadmill. Then they underwent a special MRI sequence called diffusion tensor imaging, “which is able to show us all the white matter in your brain,” she says, “and how the neurons connect to each other.”
The result: “The higher your fitness level, the better the highway system in your brain. Those with the better highway system did better on our cognitive performance test, on brain games to test how fast you respond to a question, or how many words you can remember.”
This study “shows exercise is a promising way to prevent or slow cognitive decline in that population.”
It’s the first study, she says, to show that exercise does more than make you feel good; it shows the structural impact of exercise.
Aim for 30 minutes most days, which is what Ding says is now her goal.
Take five. In this 24/7 world, there is always something with which to clog or entertain our brain. But, Chapman says, “our brain loves to be reset. Five-by-five is what we call it. Take five minutes five times a day to let your brain stop. It could be a walk around where you are inside, or go outside. Let your engine reset.”
Stop multi-tasking. Ah, how tempting it is to be talking on the phone while surfing online while cooking dinner. But that is making our brain networks “more frayed,” Chapman says. “Brain efficiency breaks down. We’re making an older brain out of a younger brain.”
The paradox, she says, is that people tend to think, “I’m doing three things at once, so I must be more efficient.” However, she says, “When you try to do three things at once, there are more errors, they take longer to do and they’re more shallow.”
So instead of taking pride in pushing yourself to do two or three things at once — which stresses out the brain and can lead to depression, she says — focus on single-tasking. “Doing one thing for a concerted period of time will strengthen the brain and increase energy tremendously.”
Up your fruit and vegetable intake. “The way we eat affects our energy; it affects our glucose,” Chapman says. “Our brain is a greedy animal. If we’re eating foods that require a lot of digestive juices, that takes away from our brain. What’s good for your heart is good for your brain.”
Sarah Lock, executive director of AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health, recommends five types of food we all need to be eating on a regular basis to keep our brains in tiptop shape:
• Berries (whole, not juice)
• Fresh vegetables (bring on the greens)
• Healthy fats (think olive oil)
• Nuts (they’re high-calorie, too, so limit your intake)
• Fish and seafood
Practice innovative thinking. “Our brain is wired to see things in new ways and to be figuring out things,” Chapman says. So while memorization is fine, “the brain gets jaded the more things we do on rote. Innovative thinking in our world that’s always changing helps keep mental independence. Our brain is built to do this until the day we die.”
A few tips: Thank someone using different words. Think of a different way to formulate a subject line or the contents of an email. “What’s a way to reframe a conversation with a family member,” she asks, “to see things from a broader perspective?”
Take a technology timeout. “Take a respite. You’ll see a quick rebound and guess what? You haven’t missed that much,” Chapman says. “If we were to take away technology from meetings, we could end them in 20 minutes. People say, ‘You don’t understand. Clients expect me to respond right away.’ I say, ‘No. They’re paying for your brain.’ ”
Believe in your brain. Our brain system starts slowing down as early as our 40s, Chapman says, “but only because we let it.” True, some people will develop Alzheimer’s, especially because the population is aging. But, she adds, “on average, 87 percent of people won’t.” And if we’re genetically prone to Alzheimer’s but have taken care of our brains, we’ll have reserve to maybe push back the symptoms by, perhaps three to five years, she says.
“Healthy lifestyle factors can mitigate the onset, but we don’t necessarily know exactly how long,” she says. Even without that knowledge though, “Why wouldn’t we build brain reserve? We save for investment retirement.”