SIX STEPS TO COGNITIVE WELLNESS
1. Regular exercise
Regular physical activity is essential to your health and wellbeing.
Exercise lowers high blood pressure, reduces the risk of heart attack, strengthens muscles and bone structure. Oxidized blood nourishes brain cells thus preventing brain degeneration and promotes new vascular growth in the hippocampus and other parts of the brain.
A study found that people who train more than three times a week are less likely to develop dementia than people who are less active. The fitter participant also scored higher test results in attention, language control / fluency, memory, and other cognitive abilities.
Mind and body exercises, like yoga, have also been shown to have the same positive effects. In addition, their effect extends to a broader range of stress relief and wellbeing for the body and mind. Six months regular exercise will already have a positive impact on memory and other cognitive abilities.
2. Stress management
We live in a time when stress, in its various forms, is constant.
When we are stressed, the pulse and the breathing accelerates, the muscles become tense, the liver releases more glucose in the bloodstream to maintain the energy level. Stress hormones, cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine contribute to the level of stress.
When stress is continuous for a longer period, it will start to affect brain function and negatively affect its structure, i.e. hippocampus, amygdala, and the frontal lobe.
The constant flow of stress hormones may for example slow or even inhibit the adult neurogenesis in the hippocampus – part of the brain that plays a key role in memory functionality.
The construction of cognitive reserves can compensate for these disadvantages.
Exercise, as well as relaxation and respiratory techniques, can rebuild the volume of the hippocampus.
Deep, calm breathing can help when you are stressed. This has been proven by the studies. Every time you breathe in deeply, the abundance of oxygen gives signals to the brain to reduce stress hormone production. Long, flowing exhalation calms and relaxes. The heart rate lowers and the blood pressure drops making you feel more peaceful and focused.
Meditation and mindfulness exercises have the same impact and they are a simple and safe way to reduce stress. According to studies, meditation exercises can promote positive structural and functional changes in the brain.
Those who have practised meditation for long periods has been found to have a thicker part of the cortex – a crucial part of the brain where planning and decision making takes place.
Calm music is also known to reduce stress and relax, lowering heart rate and blood pressure.
The significance of laughter should not be ignored. Laughing increases oxygen rich air to your lungs, nourishing the heart and the brain. Muscles and blood vessels relax. The dopamine level rises and the stress hormones levels are reduced.
You are what you eat – and what your body absorbs from it.
It is a well known fact that fruit, vegetables, pulses, nuts, whole grain products and moderate amounts of animal based products are beneficial for the health of the brain.
Green leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach are rich in vitamin K, lutein, beta-carotene – all good for the brain. Scientists and researchers have found that these nutrients can slow down cognitive function deterioration.
Also foods rich in omega-3 oil, eg. fatty fish like salmon, are good for brain health.
Berries, in particular blueberries and their flavonoids, help to improve and maintain memory.
Walnuts also have been found to promote positive effects in cognitive testing.
Recommendations also include whole grain cereals.
And of course, reducing sugar is good for the whole body, not only the brain.
4. Sufficient and good quality sleep
Sleep is essential for health and memory. The effects of a bad night’s sleep are immediate.
Sleep affects the immune system, metabolism and memory functionality. Sleep deprivation weakens concentration, short and long term memory, and impairs the ability to make decisions.
Everyone needs generally 7 hours undisturbed sleep per night. The most important stage of sleep is the REM step, especially for the brain. The lack of sleep may also alter the body’s stress resistance mechanism adversly and thus also affect brain health.
Strong social relationships and integration protect memory and cognitive functions when aging. Studies show that those with good social relationships are facing less cognitive impairments than lonely people.
Social relationships stimulate and challenge the brain for many different activities, such as concentration, remembering, combining data, expressing ideas and continuous observation.
6. Challenge your brain
The earlier and the more the brain is stimulated and challenged, the more buffer is built to protect the brain against cognitive decline due to aging. Participation in mentally challenging activities promotes neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change.
We can continually by challenging ourselves intellectually with some new skill eg. by learning a new language, practicing a new musical instrument, playing the card game Bridge.
Traveling, going to theatre, concerts and museums also stimulate and enrich the brain psychologically, especially if the experience is connected with learning and the will to learn new.
It’s important to step outside your comfort zone every now and then.
A holistic approach is the best in building up mental reserves and preventing memory disorders.