Lifestyle Factors to Reinforce Brain Health

by Brooklin White MS Candidate, Dietetic Intern Lifestyle

In addition to diet, exercise, education and brain training are some of the best lifestyle factors to reinforce brain health. The brain is an extremely vascularized tissue, meaning it requires a high amount of oxygen to function appropriately (the brain uses about 25% of your oxygen intake). When the brain lacks oxygen, it has trouble signaling the delivery of oxygenated blood to other organs throughout the body. Low vascularization of the brain through the onset of diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, cardiac disease or stroke can lead to dysfunction in the blood-brain-barrier and create capillary hypoperfusion, meaning brain cells essentially become “oxygen-starved”. The cascade of these events is thought to lead to amyloid-beta accumulation, neuronal dysfunction, and neurodegeneration (1).

Exercise

One of the best ways to increase oxygenation in the brain is through exercise. An increase in heart rate during exercise means there is an elevation in blood flow to the brain, which exposes the brain to more oxygen and nutrients that are carried within the blood. A preclinical trial recently showed that more oxygen was brought to the brains of mice when they exercised because their increased respiration rate packed more oxygen onto hemoglobin, which is the protein responsible for transporting oxygen in the blood to different organs (2). Although this study was performed in mice, the same respiration-driven fluctuations were seen in the arterial blood of ungulates, suggesting it is a property of mammals as a whole (3).

In clinical trials, older adults who engage in consistent, moderately intense exercise have been shown to have higher levels of cognitive functioning, as compared to sedentary adults (4)(5). Aerobic exercise (aerobic means ‘with oxygen’ and includes activities such as running, swimming and biking) has been shown to increase hippocampal volume in healthy older adults (6). Since the hippocampus is the main organ responsible for neurogenesis, it is clear that exercise is also associated with an increase in neurogenesis, long-term potentiation (LTP*) and BDNF* levels within the hippocampus (7). Higher levels of BDNF specifically, are associated with both better memory function and hippocampal volumes (8).

I want to repeat this again for emphasis:aerobic exercise alone, helps increase hippocampal volume and promotes neurogenesis.This isastounding. If a drug was formulated to have the same effects it would be swept off the shelves immediately. Unfortunately, many individuals have trouble stepping out of their comfort zone when it comes to establishing an exercise routine. Learning how to create lasting behavior changes may help you include these lifestyle changes into your weekly routine.

Cognitive Training

Cognitive training throughout life also has a huge impact on cognitive health, and is a great lifestyle factor to leverage to improve brain health. BrainHQ, for example, is an online brain training platform that is backed by scientific research. Several studies have found that utilizing BrainHQ has led to increased brain activation, improved visual and auditory attention, better overall memory amongst other benefits (9)(10)(11). Although cognitive training is usually associated with these online brain games, crossword puzzles and sudoku, it can be considered anything from formal education to learning new experiences – Essentially, anything that makes you think critically and solve problems can be considered cognitive training. Consistently being engaged in conversation with friends and family, exploring new hiking trails, and pursuing new hobbies are just a few ways to strengthen brain synapses.

Breaking out of routines has been shown to be an excellent way to support brain health. Creating new habits or working on new projects promotes the formation of synapses between neurons. Consistently working on these hobbies or projects helps to strengthen synapses and establish new pathways for different hierarchies of brain function (12). Starting up new hobbies such as learning how to play an instrument, picking up a new sport, listening to a podcast, watching a TedTalk, cooking new meals, practicing yoga and meditation, and reading are just a few examples of activities that can strengthen different hemispheres of the brain and serve as protection against cognitive decline.

Education

Rising levels of education also make a difference on cognition. A meta-analysis of observational evidence estimated that fewer years of education is associated with nearly twice the risk of dementia (13). Data from the National Health Interview Survey estimated that these rising education levels accounted for nearly one half of the 35% decline in disabilities seen in older, community dwelling adults when it came to activities of daily living (14). It is thought that education promotes the development of neural circuits, which provide an increased ability to withstand vascular damage (15). In other words, if we’ve built up enough of a cognitive reserve, we may be able to afford to lose some of our neuronal network and still function optimally. Additional longitudinal studies showed that more years of education were associated with a lower risk of dementia before death (16).

What’s the Takeaway?

Working on autopilot by living out the same daily routines means that our brains are always operating the same neuronal pathways. Although comfortable, these routines lack challenge for our brains and limit it from strengthening new neurons. Exercise is often touted as a benefit for our physical well being, but it’s important to remember that it is also crucial for our cognition. Equally, our brains require activation be that through brain training or formal education. At the end of the day, the more you can pick up a new skill, read a new subject, or explore a new trail, the stronger your brain will ultimately become.

*BDNF, as mentioned in previous blogs, is short for brain-derived neurotrophic factor, and is a protein that supports the survival of neurons neurogenesis and long-term potentiation.

*LTP is a measurement of synaptic strength in the hippocampus which is the organ responsible for learning and memory.


References

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