Brain Health: The Things You Can Do to Make it Stronger

Getting older is something we all struggle with, from the thought of our increased age to the aging of our bodies. Some feel it in their joints and bones, while others notice their minds starting to slow. Aging causes many differences in not just our bodies but also in our brain. Fear not, there are some exercises that can help you stay sharp for many years to come.

As we get older, our cognitive abilities gradually deteriorate. A certain amount of cognitive decline is a normal part of ageing. When getting into your 50’s you can start to see your reasoning skills slow. According to research in the British Medical Journal, middle aged patients saw a 3.6 percent decline in reasoning skills over the past 10 years.

Woman Playing SudokuThere are things you can do to strengthen your cognitive abilities. Playing games that require logic, process of elimination, and reasoning skills such as Clue and Sudoku, can help strengthen those abilities by using parts of your brain that you may not use as much on a daily basis. Challenge your brain in your daily life. Try brushing your teeth with your non dominant hand. By doing this, you’ll be using the other side of your brain to perform the task which expands the part of the cortex that controls tactile information from the hand.

Though everyone is different, in a normal healthy brain, the major thing that happens as we get older is our neurons slow down a bit. According to the Journal of Nutritional Science, people whose diets consisted of fried foods didn’t score well on tests that measured brain function, memory, and learning. Researchers believed that having a poor diet of fried foods contributed to inflammation and a small brain size. Switching out battered and fried foods for grilled and baked items can help reduce this risk.

Other items bad for your brain’s health are high amounts of sugars and trans fats. Research has found that a high intake of trans fats, found in processed foods, like cakes and cookies, can increase your risk of cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s. This is due to the possible cause of plaque build up in your brain. To prevent this, ditch the processed sweets for dark chocolate and/or fruit. Brain health, just like your overall health, is greatly affected by sugar!

As you age, your brain will shrink. It’s unavoidable. According to researchers at the University of California, Davis, there are four factors that can speed up the decline in brain volume.

      • high blood pressure
      • diabetes
      • cigarette smoking
      • being overweight or obese

 

Maintaining a healthy diet and exercising on a regular basis can help to avoid this. Quitting smoking can always help with a healthier lifestyle and a healthier brain.

Though we have talked a lot about the effects of an aging brain, you might be confused where the line is between normal aging and a need for serious concern. Here are a few examples to ease your mind. Finding yourself searching for words is likely normal compared to using the wrong words, for example using the word stove when referring to your table. Driving a little slower than your used to is a normal thing among aging drivers, but if you start to react very slowly behind the wheel, or often miss stop signs and red lights, these could be signs of a bigger problem.

No matter how you age, the most important thing is to continue to live your best life. Here are a few things that can not only keep you active, but keep your brain active as well. Keep Learning! Instead of doing the same old thing, think outside the box and try something new. New experiences will build new pathways in your brain, keeping your mind healthy as you get older. You can also spend more time with friends and family. Being social can help keep your mind sharp as you age. The key to an active happy life and brain health is an active happy brain.

This blog was previously posted in Prime Women magazine here.

Think Happy, Be Happy

Our thoughts are central to our character. They determine our emotions, how we react to the world in tragedy or in celebration, and how we live mentally, physically, and spiritually. In other words, our deepest thoughts and outlook on the world can directly impact our well-being and our daily lives in a big way.

Positive Thinking Doesn’t Mean Never Feeling Sad

Woman BalancingPositive thinking is an attitude or mindset in which a person generally waits for or expects good or favorable outcomes, whether it’s about how you look at yourself, at others, or at situations you’re in. Keep in mind, though, that positive thinking doesn’t mean you never feel gloomy or pessimistic. It doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to be angry or sad. The key to having a positive outlook is balance–making sure you’re not leaning too heavily on the negative side to where it’s making you miserable.

What Affects Your Brain Also Affects Your Life

Our thoughts are released as brain signals, and thoughts that are positive cause the generation and reinforcement of new synapses in the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The prefrontal cortex, which is in charge of cognition, and the amygdala, which regulates emotion, work together in a framework to mediate emotional influences on cognitive processes. As a result, we experience increased brain functioning.

On the other hand, a heavier focus on the negative can slow your brain down, hindering one’s emotional wellness. Things like rumination on the past and situations you can’t change, or constant fear and worrying about the future can dim your brain’s functioning, as it leaves no space for pleasurable thoughts. Again, balance is key for your emotional wellness.

Signs of emotional wellness can be seen in one’s degree of resilience, which is the ability to bounce back from difficult situations. Another sign, according to studies, is the ability to hold onto positive emotions longer and appreciate joyous times. Having self-purpose and meaning, as well as knowing what is important to you, are also contributing factors to your emotional wellness.

Positive Thinking and Your Health

Happy WomanHaving that balance between positive and negative thoughts not only makes you emotionally healthy, but it’s also believed to improve physical health. Studies have shown that an “upbeat mental state” might be linked to “improved health, including lower blood pressure, reduced risk for heart disease, healthier weight, better blood sugar levels, and longer life.”

Similarly, negative thoughts can lead to stress responses, which can hinder your emotional wellness. Positive thinking in various forms, including those with relaxation techniques, can help with stress management and improve one’s health.

When Positive Thinking Doesn’t Come Easy

Identify the Negative

Start noticing your negative thought patterns. Are you blaming yourself every time something goes wrong? Do you let one thing ruin the rest of your day? Throughout the day, notice the areas of your life you’re negative about. That way, you can try approaching those areas differently.

Humor It

Sometimes, not-so-pleasant situations can have humorous aspects to them. Try to notice those, and allow yourself a moment of laughter at the situation.

See “Failures” as Opportunities

Everything we “fail” at, we can learn from. Try to view it as a learning opportunity.

Be Healthy

Having a healthy diet and exercise schedule positively impacts all areas of health. This sets you up for easier, more natural positive thinking throughout your days.

Surround Yourself with Positive People

Negativity breeds negativity. Try to surround yourself with positive mentors and friends who are realistic, but try to magnify the good, allowing it to outweigh the bad.

Practice Positive Self-Talk

This also means overcoming negative self-talk. It may feel unnatural and uncomfortable at first, but its long term effects are valuable. Here’s the best rule: Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to someone else. If you do think something negative, look at it rationally and respond with positive things about yourself, as well as gratitude.

Start Off Positive

While waking up is hard early in the morning, try to start your day with a positive affirmation, whether it’s reading quotes or self meditation.

Live in the Present

It’s true; the present is a gift. Allow yourself to really dwell and live in the here and now, as it’s everything that was and will be. As you enjoy the moment, you’re freeing yourself from past ones and protecting yourself from future ones.

With that, I will leave you with this popular and meaningful affirmation:

Albus Dumbledore Quote

 

Note: This blog was previously posted in Prime Women here.

How Winter Affects Your Brain

Studies new and old have shown that, in fact, moods and behaviors do change depending on seasons, and similarly, brain activity also changes. Here’s what you should know about our brains as the seasons change.

The Season of Seasonal Affective Disorder

Cloudy DayI’m sure you’ve heard of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is a type of depression that varies with the seasons, often being triggered in late fall and early winter, and subsiding in spring and summer. It is said the lack of light, more clouds, and shorter days in winter are the contributors to seasonal affective disorder, but the causes aren’t concrete. Researchers have found people with seasonal affective disorder may have an imbalance of serotonin, which is a chemical that affects your mood. A person with this disorder could also make too much melatonin (a hormone that regulates sleep) and not enough vitamin D. There are ways to combat the symptoms: through light therapy, exercise, eating right, and setting a healthy sleep schedule.

Pay Attention in Summer, Remember in Fall

In a 2016 Belgian study, researchers found that participants’ abilities to perform different tasks remained relatively the same over the year. However, the responses of their brains to the tasks were different depending on the season. For tasks that required sustained attention, brain activity peaked in summer and “bottomed out” in winter. It was nearly the opposite for brain activity in response to tasks that required working memory, as it peaked around autumn and “bottomed out” around spring. So, while neither is necessarily better than the other, they’re certainly different.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

Seasonal Affective Disorder LightIt’s also possible the colder months are good for our decision-making abilities. Researchers, as reported by the Scientific American, tested this link and had results suggesting simple cognitive tasks, like decision-making, can be somewhat affected by “excessive ambient warmth.” They figured, as our bodies work hard to maintain a healthy internal temperature, they use up resources that would otherwise be available for mental processing. These findings, however, are not to say that those who live in hotter climates are more prone to poor decision-making; humans are incredibly adaptive to their environments, especially when exposed long term.

If You Have the Winter Blues…

While these are interesting findings, it doesn’t change the fact that some of us love winter and some of us hate it. Here’s how to embrace the colder months if you have the winter blues.

  • Use early morning or midday to your advantage and take a walk while the sun is still out. Get that vitamin D on your lunch break. Also, eat good sources of vitamin D when the skies are gray.
  • Soothe the soul with warm beverages and foods like herbal teas, coffee, and soups.
  • Keep your house and your toes warm, and if you need that extra kick of warmth, get a space heater and some of these thermal socks. This is also the perfect excuse to have mounds of comfortable throw blankets on every couch, chair, and bed.
  • Wear bright colors or just colors that make you happy. Often, red is associated with high energy and power. Orange is warm and inviting, and yellow is often associated with optimism and cheeriness.
  • Work on a project that will help you stay mentally active and will be a fun way to get you through the winter months.
  • Spend your time with optimistic people.

Don’t Let Winter Give You the Cold Shoulder

Ultimately, try not to let your spirit drop as the temperatures do. If winter gives you the cold shoulder, start focusing on self-care and the other coping mechanisms above. Your brain will thank you for it!

 

Note: This blog was previously posted in Prime Women here.