Focus: Wellness - The 5 Most Powerful Things You Can Do For Brain Health

And how to make them fun!

Photo by Fakurian Design™ on Unsplash

I’m reading Dr Sanjay Gupta’s book called Keep Sharp. It’s all about brain health and preventing dementia. There is a lot of new research on this subject and some of it is pretty powerful. According to Dr Gupta, there are 5 things we can focus on to keep our brains healthy as we age. They’ll be familiar themes, so I’m adding a way to incorporate them into your lifestyle that hopefully make them a little more interesting and fun. Let’s try.

#1: Exercise

Exercise is THE MOST important thing you can do for a healthy brain. In fact, according to Gupta, it has thus far been the only thing we have scientifically documented to directly improve brain health and function. You have to break a sweat. And you have to sustain that several days per week for the rest of your life. I’m afraid it’s that or your spouse wiping goo off your face for the rest of your life. Ask them which they prefer…

How to make it fun: Plan something! Plan a trip where you hike, or ride a bike through beautiful scenery. Book a class where you learn to sail or cross-country ski. Or, find some pals to exercise with you. Create a walking club. Learn doubles tennis. Resolve to break the world record for number of people jumping on pogo sticks. Exercise is easy to make fun. You just need to put some brain cells on it - while you still have them!

#2 Nourishment

According to Dr Gupta, recently we have begun to find some evidence that what we eat affects our brains directly, as well as through the microbiome. Have you heard you should eat salmon for a healthy brain? Turns out there is truth to that. The foods that are best for your heart are also best for your brain. They are cold water fish, olive oil, whole grains, nuts and seeds and fibrous fruits and vegetables (think avocado, raspberries and leafy greens). Limit those that do a number on your gut, like sugar, highly processed foods (including processed meats like lunch meat) and those high in saturated fats like full fat dairy and red meat.

How to make it fun: Actually visit the Mediterranean and see how they eat! Barring that, get a Mediterranean cookbook and try some fun recipes. Go to the farmer’s market and pick out a fruit or vegetable you’ve never tried. In fact, go with friends, everyone get a new vegetable and make a soup with whatever you all chose. Just add them to some vegetable stock and BAM, you’ve got soup! Trust me that it is always delicious, no matter what veggies you put in there. When my son was young we used to invite my parents for one special dinner every fall where we made soup. The tradition was that everyone would bring leftovers from the fridge and we’d throw them in a pot and see what we got. We’ve had everything from ham and bbq chicken to beets and green beans in our soups over the years and they are, without fail, fantastic!

#3 Leisure/Relaxation

If you’ve ever been sleep deprived, you get this one. Your brain simply does not work well when you are not rested - and that includes physically rested as well as rested from stress. Dr. Gupta calls relaxing your brain through sleep or meditation “the rinse cycle.” It’s time that allows your brain to get rid of toxins or “metabolic waste” that you are generating while you are stressing the organ. “You're clearing out plaque and tangles, and all the things that lead to dementia. You're helping the brain run more smoothly,” he says.

How to make it fun: For me, sleep is fun. I love my 8 hours. But meditation is a different beast. Relaxing your brain is great for it, though. If “meditation” meaning sitting still and trying to calm your brain isn’t for you, don’t despair. Anything that allows your brain to wander works. My walks count because I actively try not to allow thoughts of “to do” lists or daily pressures to be part of my thinking. I daydream while I walk. You can do that while you’re doing dishes, or fishing, or doing a jigsaw puzzle. Anything that allows your brain to relax and wander is fair game.

#4 Connection

"Social interaction is one of the big predictors of neurogenesis," or creation of new brain cells, which prevents dementia, Gupta says. "Social interaction is near the top of the list when it comes to making new brain cells. Connecting with others has been known to be important for a long time. But we now know that it leads to the release of certain hormones like oxytocin, which foster neurogenesis." So, if you want a bigger brain, get a bigger social circle.

How to make it fun: Friends and family are fun, especially during the holidays. Have a friendsgiving. Have a cookie bake off. Sit by a fireplace with some mulled wine and share holiday stories. Watch a traditional Christmas movie with extended family or a pack of pals. Take your grandkids ice skating. Have a football watch party. Connection and fun go hand in hand.

#5 Discovery

This is where people went wrong for a few decades. People used to think that puzzles exercised your brain, so they were good for brain health. That’s not really the case. Puzzles that lead you to new discoveries or help you solve something in a new way, are dynamite. Puzzles that just pull from things you already know, like crossword puzzles or sudoku, “get a B-” according to Gupta. They are rescued from the C or D category because, if you are trying to improve recall, they can be helpful, but if you are trying to find new pathways and make your brain more resilient and less susceptible to dementia, new stuff is where it’s at. Dr Gupta lumps purpose in this category, as well, because, he says, “with a sense of purpose, comes a love for life and all of the experiences it offers.” Discovering new things, as small as using your non-dominant hand to brush your teeth to as big as traveling to new lands, builds new pathways in your brain. That’s important because if old pathways get blocked with plaques or “tangles” your brain can take a different route - think of it as using a detour when a main road is blocked.

How to make it fun: How do you NOT make this one fun?? Go someplace new. Read a book you’ve always wanted to read. Take a class. Learn to play an instrument. Try out a power tool or kitchen gadget that you’ve had for decades collecting dust. Go to your friend’s place of worship with them. There are WAY more things you haven’t done than things you have in this world. Find a few and do ‘em. In fact, do one per week. Start with brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand tonight before bed.

What struck me about this read is that these 5 things relate directly to the pillars we are exploring for our Third Act. If you have a Rockin’ Third Act through Purpose, Wellness, Connections and FUN you’ll also be doing your brain a favor and staving off the nasty dementia demons. Nice.