Lifestyle strategies to prevent brain shrinkage and get smarter!

Healthy Brain.jpg

In a recent post I looked at lifestyle factors that cause brain shrinkage. (Missed it? Check it out HERE.) In this post, I dive into the lifestyle strategies that not only prevent brain shrinkage, but can help make you smarter, too! (Read this post to learn the nutritional tactics that help you achieve these goals.)

Humans have a high-degree of neuroplasticity, which is the "brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment." (definition courtesy of medicinenet.com.) This is good news. We can harness this neuroplasticity to our advantage. Our brains thrive on novelty and learning new things. By engaging our senses and our curiosity we can create habits that will help keep our brains humming and our cognitive abilities sharp for many many years. 

So how do we do it?

Lifestyle Strategies to make you smarter and keep your brain full size: 

  1. Get enough sleep. I've written at length about the importance of sleep (go HERE to read my most recent article on the topic), and mentioned it in last week's article on causes of brain shrinkage. It's so important that I'm talking about it again here. In terms of brain health, sleep is important because it is when our brains clean out, through the glymphatic system. In particular, sleep is the time the brain cleans out a protein called beta-amyloid (BA). BA is implicated in the development of Alzheimer's disease. Sleep deprivation leads to impaired attention, focus, and retention. Sleep is when our brains perform memory consolidation, which is the process of moving short-term memories to long-term retention. Sleep loss can lead to or aggravate depression and anxiety, 
  2. Get smarter while you brush your teeth. If you've ever broken your dominant arm, you know how awkward using your non-dominant hand can. But did you know it was making you smarter? Your brain is divided into two halves, a right hemisphere and a left hemisphere. The two hemispheres operate both independently and in concert with each other. The left hemisphere is known as the logical, rational side (and controls the right side of your body) and the right hemisphere is known as the more creative, intuitive side (and controls the left side of the body). The middle part of our brain that joins the two together is called the Corpus Callosum. When you use your non-dominant hand for routine activities (like brushing your teeth or using your computer mouse), you strengthen the corpus callosum and grow new neural connections, better integrating the two halves which in turn leads to better communication between the two. The reason this works is because the controlling half of the brain for your dominant side is active when using your dominant hand (ie, your left brain is active when using your right hand if you are right handed), but both sides are active when using your non-dominant hand! So use your non-dominant hand for brushing your teeth, pouring drinks (be prepared for a mess the first couple of times!), opening jars, learn a new musical instrument, and using the mouse or remote control. 
  3. Dance! In this study from Stanford, the authors state that "Dancing integrates several brain functions at once — kinesthetic, rational, musical, and emotional — further increasing your neural connectivity." Dancing also helps release serotonin (the "feel good" neurotransmitter that is responsible for runner's high) and decreases stress. From the Stanford study: "The essence of intelligence is making decisions.  The best advice, when it comes to improving your mental acuity, is to involve yourself in activities (such as dancing) which require split-second rapid-fire decision making, as opposed to rote memory (retracing the same well-worn paths), or just working on your physical style. Do all kinds of dancing lead to increased mental acuity?  No, not all forms of dancing will produce the same benefit, especially if they only work on style, or merely retrace the same memorized paths." Learning new things (in this case, learning new dance moves or styles) is the key to neuroplasticity. Being good at dance is not the point, it's the process of learning that is critical. Other studies have shown that freestyle social dancing is the best for improving cognitive function, because you have to coordinate with and respond to other people's moves. So go find a dance class and shake your groove thang to a new beat. Your body and mind will thank you! 
  4. Vary your routine. Habits are important for us to function at optimal levels (they are activities that run on autopilot, freeing up valuable brain energy for tasks requiring more though and concentration). But habits can turn into ruts. If you do the same things the same way day after day, you may be treating your brain of the novelty and stimulation it needs to thrive. Variety helps stimulate new/underutilized areas of the brain and grow new neural connections. You can literally grow your brain. Varying your routine requires that you have a healthy routine to begin with. If your morning routine consists of hitting the snooze button three or ten times before jumping out of bed, gulping a cup of coffee and grabbing a donut on the way to work, then creating a healthier morning routine is needed before varying it. That said, doing things in a different order (exercise in the afternoon if you usually so it first thing in the morning for example), driving to work along the scenic route (which may require you to get up a bit earlier than usual), try a new form of exercise (try yoga if you always run the same three miles, or try CrossFit if all you've done is yoga for the last five years).
  5. Watch (a little!) TV. Turns out that watching a short amount of TV, such as a half-hour comedy show, can actually make you smarter. Strange, but true. Sitting in front of the TV for hours every day will definitely not make you smarter, but using it as an occasional tool to relax and de-stress can be an effective way to utilize this ubiquitous object. Stress is notoriously bad for our brains, decreasing focus and attention. So next time you feel like vegging out with a (short!) TV show, instead of feeling guilty, enjoy your time knowing you are actually doing something good for your brain.  
  6. Meditate. Maybe you've heard meditation has many health benefits, including reduced stress, lowered blood pressure, and improved sleep. Now you can add increased brain size and improved memory to the long (and growing) list of benefits from regular meditation. Meditation increases density (as seen in MRIs) in the areas associated with learning and memory, compassion and empathy and sense of self. MRIs also show that the grey matter of the amygdala actually shrinks at the same time as the memory and learning centers are growing. The best news of all is that you don't have to become a monk to gain these benefits. Studies show improvement occurs in as little as 30 minutes a day in just eight weeks. 

This is not a complete list, but a good starting point for improving your brain function and keeping your cognitive abilities strong for years and decades to come. 

Click HERE to learn the Nutritional Strategies to make you smarter and keep your brain full size.