9 science backed ways to keep your brain healthy and active

The brain is a powerful organ in the body. It acts as a control centre of the body, receives messages from stimuli within and outside the body, processes information obtained, and generates an appropriate response to the stimuli. It is more powerful than any computer created today. 

Do you ever wonder how big the brain is? You can clench your two fists and place these side by side, and you now have a good idea of how big your brain is. Your brain is almost the size of your two fists placed together! 

Your brain weighs approximately 1.5 kg and houses billions of neurons and trillions of supporting cells to keep these neurons and the brain tissue functioning and healthy. 

The brain must be healthy and active to optimise brain functioning and overall health. 

So, how do you keep your brain healthy and active? Here are some ways that you can do to improve your brain health. These activities are supported by current studies to be associated with improvements in brain health

Stimulate your brain 

Stimulate your brain 

In a study amongst older adults [1], investigators found that adults who regularly do crossword puzzles improved their mental health and delayed cognitive impairment compared to those who did not play puzzles or read books.

This study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), did not include younger adults. 

Hence, it would be difficult to determine if playing puzzles can benefit younger groups not facing cognitive decline. However, the study suggested that keeping your mind active once you are nearing old age may help your brain.

The research is also essential for older adults with mild cognitive impairment. Playing puzzles can delay further language problems, memory, and decision-making decline. All these are hallmarks of dementia, a disease marked by cognitive impairment. 

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Walk or run around your neighbourhood

Aerobic exercises such as walking or running in your neighbourhood or nearby park can do wonders for your brain health. 

The World Health Organization [2] recommends at least 150 minutes of physical activity throughout the week to maintain optimal physical health. This is running or walking for at least 45 minutes three times a week. 

The good news is that walking only requires good shoes, and you are ready to go! You can also join group-based physical exercises. It has been shown that interacting in groups while exercising can benefit your emotional and mental health. 

The benefits of walking and other aerobic exercises, such as swimming, are well supported in studies. For example, one recent study [3] examined the effects of physical activity on 454 adults.

All these adults were followed for 20 years, and each underwent cognitive tests and yearly physical exams. Results showed that those who performed regular physical activities scored better on thinking and memory tests.

Further, the study had promising results as it revealed that physical exercise was associated with a 31% lower risk of developing dementia. 

Starting physical exercise early is the key to longevity and overall brain health!

Improve your diet 

Improve your diet 

Do you know that diet plays a critical role in protecting your brain and promoting its health? 

A study [4] revealed that traditional Japanese and Mediterranean diets are associated with improved cognition in younger to older adults.

The exact mechanisms of how these diets can improve mental functioning, memory and learning have yet to be elucidated. However, scientists agree that the mechanisms may be multifactorial. 

For example, these diets are rich in fruits and vegetables with antioxidants. These antioxidants protect the brain and body cells against destruction by removing excess radicals in the body.

These radicals have been implicated in early ageing and the development of dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases. Eating these diets could also promote better overall health, reducing stress and depression that can affect the brain’s health. 

Hence, eat more fruits and vegetables and fewer foods rich in saturated fats or junk foods in your next meal. 

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Probiotics and the brain-gut relationship 

Do you know that what happens in the brain can affect gut health and vice versa? Have you ever experienced butterflies in your stomach or nauseous when faced with stage fright?

Emotions and experiences can influence your digestive system. For example, an upset stomach usually goes away after a frightening experience is gone. Similarly, what happens in your gut can affect your brain. 

You have billions of microorganisms in your gut that can influence gut health. Called probiotics, these microorganisms, such as bacteria, produce chemicals beneficial to the brain [5].

For instance, 95% of the serotonin is produced by bacteria in the gut. Serotonin is a chemical and a neurotransmitter. It carries messages between the brain’s nerve cells and cells in the body.

It plays vital bodily functions such as mood, digestion, nausea, bone health, and wound healing. Hence, promoting gut health is critical in improving mood and transmitting messages across the brain. You can consult your doctor to determine which probiotic supplement is best for you. 

Time to lessen the intake of food and beverages rich in refined sugar 

The World Health Organization [6] recommends reducing the intake of free sugars or refined sugars to only 5% of the diet. This translates to only six teaspoons of free sugar in the diet for adults and lower for children. 

A cola drink has 10 tsp of free sugar, while one tablespoon of ketchup has 1 tsp of free sugar. Habitual intake of refined sugar is associated with poor scores in the mini-mental state exam [7].

This exam determines adults’ cognitive functioning, such as memory and learning. Hence, starting early by eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and carbohydrates from fruits and grains could help ward off early memory loss. 

Stop smoking 

Smoking leaves residues of nicotine in the blood. A study [8] found that regardless of the health status of smokers, there was a strong association between smoking and poor brain health. In the research, investigators examined the participants’ cognitive functioning through an examination. 

The exam showed that habitual smokers scored lower in the mental examination. They had poorer memory and learning functions. Although the study could not establish a cause-and-effect relationship, the results showed a strong relationship between smoking and poor brain health. 

Improve your blood pressure 

Improve your blood pressure 

Hypertension or high blood pressure has been associated with an increased risk of poor cognitive functioning.

A review [9] examining several studies and clinical trials on how hypertension affects the brain found a strong association between high blood pressure and an increased risk of dementia later in life.

Further, the review also stated that lowering blood pressure early in the disease course and exercise can help mitigate the impact of high blood pressure on cognitive functioning. 

Lowering your blood pressure naturally and through medications is an essential and critical step in promoting brain health.

Although the mechanisms of why high blood pressure can cause cognitive dysfunctioning remains unclear, it is necessary that you take early steps to prevent cognitive impairment later in life. 

Address obesity 

Obesity is one of the leading health issues in many countries, including the US and the UK. Addressing obesity remains in health policies and agendas in countries across the world. Besides increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus and cardiovascular diseases, obesity can also affect brain health. 

A review of different studies [10] reported that obesity impacts the volume of the brain. It also impacts executive function skills, such as planning, juggling tasks simultaneously, remembering instructions, and focusing attention.

In younger children, obesity can affect cognitive development, while in younger adults, it can increase the risk of dementia later in life. 

Starting early in life by eating a healthy diet and engaging in physical exercises can help lessen the risk of obesity. In turn, this can reduce the impact of obesity on your brain volume and health. 

You might want to try low-dose aspirin

Aspirin is a common drug used to treat mild pains such as headaches and to lower fever. In recent years, a meta-analysis and systematic review [11] examined different studies investigating the effects of low-dose aspirin on brain health.

Findings suggested that in cohort studies where participants were followed over time, results indicated that intake of low-dose aspirin reduced the risk of dementia.

Although this is a promising result, there is still a need to confirm findings in large, well-designed clinical trials. In the meantime, you can consult your doctor on the appropriate aspirin dose for brain health. 

Optimising your brain health is crucial for better memory, learning and executive functioning, such as planning, organizing and multi-tasking.

There are proven ways to help you prevent brain decline over the years. Some of these have been discussed above and can be followed with the guidance of your doctor. 

Awareness of how diet and physical activities can influence brain helps is critical in promoting better brain health. Following these steps and starting with small and regular steps can improve your mental health and well-being.

Reducing refined sugar in the diet is another essential step you can take daily. You can try to replace beverages such as cola with fruit drinks. Importantly, you can try probiotics to optimise brain health. 

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[1] https://evidence.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/EVIDoa2200121
[2] https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/physical-activity
[3] https://n.neurology.org/content/92/8/362
[4]  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8235742/
[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5526216/
[6] https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789241549028
[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6662517/
[8] https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/str.53.suppl_1.WP17 
[9] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34957783/
[10] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7598577/
[11] https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnagi.2020.578071/full

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