The human brain is the most extraordinary and complex object in the known universe, a kilogram and a half of soft tissue that, at its peak, leaves computers behind with its endless capacity for problem solving, innovation and invention.
So it’s a little surprising that only recently has the concept of brain health begun to emerge. After all, if the body is a “temple”, then surely the brain must be the “high altar” as it generates all our thoughts, feelings and movements. Indeed, it is fundamental to all of our conscious experience.
Brain diseases such as Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia demonstrate how devastating it is when the brain degenerates, dragging the mind and its many wonderful capacities down with it. Clearly, it’s time we all focused more on this most important organ, to improve both the quality and quantity of brain health across the lifespan.
The good news is that many of the lifestyle choices that are good for the body are also good for the brain. But we need to be mindful that other factors may be particularly beneficial for brain. Here’s a distillation of some of the current evidence supporting beneficial lifestyle factors into four pillars of brain health.
First: stay physically active
This is a somewhat obvious lifestyle recommendation, as everyone now knows that physical activity is good for the body. But not everyone yet realises the extent to which physical activity boosts brain health.
There are many ways this may happen as the brain and body are in constant dynamic bidirectional communication. Physical activity can cause muscles to release beneficial molecules that reach the brain, as well as increasing blood circulation to the brain and inducing the formation of new brain cells (neurons) and connections (synapses) between them.
People who maintain higher levels of physical activity may help protect themselves from brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of brain degeneration. There is also evidence that physical activity may help protect against depression and other brain disorders.
Second: stay mentally active
Two of the cardinal rules of brain plasticity (changes in the brain) appear to be “use it or lose it” and “neurons that fire together wire together”. There’s also some evidence that people who maintain higher levels of cognitive (mental) activity may be protected from Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
Along with physical activity, cognitive stimulation may help build in a “brain reserve” to protect from, and functionally compensate for, the wear and tear of brain ageing. We don’t know exactly what lifestyle choices are the most important. But spending a lot of time watching television, for example, may involve the double whammy of reduced physical and mental activity, and could be one risk factor.
So what mentally stimulating activities should you do more of? This is a very personal choice, as it will need to be something you can continue to do not just for days and weeks, but for months and years, in order to have long-term benefits.
Third: eat a healthy diet
Yes, you no doubt know this is good for your body, but did you realise a balanced nutritious diet (such as the one recommended here) is also good for your brain?
Most of the nutrients from food circulate through your brain via the bloodstream. So a healthy diet can directly improve the health of brain cells and may even slow down brain ageing.
What’s more, by improving body health, the brain may benefit via the heart and cardiovascular system, the immune system and other physiological systems that impact on the nervous system.
Fourth: don’t stress too much!
The human body, including of course the brain, has evolved over many thousands of years. When we were cave-dwellers and hunter-gatherers, the stress response (“fight or flight”) served a very useful purpose in evading predators, obtaining food and other aspects of survival.
But busy 21st-century lifestyles mean many of us suffer from excessive chronic stress. This may eventually be toxic for the body. It’s especially bad for the brain because parts of it are absolutely loaded with sensitive “stress receptors”.
What’s more, some people are more genetically vulnerable to stress, while others are naturally more resilient. These innate factors also impact our stress responses.
Many lifestyle choices can help us better deal with excessive chronic stress. Stress-reducing strategies such as “mindfulness” and meditation are becoming increasingly popular, often being taught in schools and prescribed by health professionals.
Physical exercise can also help people deal with stress; everyone may have their own approach to “de-stressing” and “chilling out”. Another positive side effect of avoiding excessive chronic stress is healthy sleep patterns. Adequate and regular sleep patterns are known to be beneficial for both brain and body.
To conclude, I think it was Woody Allen who famously said: “The brain is my second favourite organ!” Considering how fundamental it is to everything we think, feel and do, perhaps we should all be more mindful to look after this most fantastic and plastic of organs, the human brain.
Anthony Hannan is the Head of Neural Plasticity , Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health