What You Should Know
What do we really know about optimizing brain health, especially into old age? Well, it turns out that a lot of the things that your grandparent's generation knew were the keys to good health have recently been vindicated by modern science: Recent research shows that exercising regularly, getting six to eight hours of sleep every night and staying engaged intellectually can keep our brains agile and young.
Unmissable Benefits of Exercise
Aerobic exercise is especially good for improving your circulation, significantly decreasing your risk of cardiovascular disease, and improving your blood pressure and blood sugar management. The findings are so encouraging that the University of Georgia recommends that everyone get at least 20 minutes of aerobic exercise a day to increase their daily brain functioning.
Just 20 minutes of aerobic exercise a day has been shown to give a boost to your information processing, attention and working memory.
These are really the holy grail when it comes to improving your brain function at any age since information processing and attention govern our ability to make smart decisions every day while working memory allows us to keep many different things in our minds at once, manipulate that information on-the-go and come out with the best decision possible.
Stimulate Brain Growth Factors
On a more physiological level, aerobic exercise has been shown to dilate the blood vessels feeding our brains, oxygenate the blood that gets there and even stimulating the growth of fresh connections between brain cells. Exercise also improves our body's ability to create new growth factors in the brain - e.g., brain-derived neurotrophic factor - and spur on the process of neurogenesis by which new neurons are created.
Research forwarded from the National Institutes of Health tells us that exercise can even streamline our brain's ability to make positive lasting changes in response to positive behaviors (e.g., exercise) and new learning (e.g., picking up an instrument). The process by which the brain essentially improves itself in this way is known as neuroplasticity, and you can reap even more benefits when you couple exercise with cognitive training exercises.
Challenge Yourself Intellectually Daily
While a cognitive training task known as dual n-back training has been one of the few cognitive training exercises clinically shown to improve both attention and working memory, there's a lot that you can do today to keep your brain sharp and on-the-ball.
Reading for an hour or more every day, learning a new language or picking up an instrument you've often thought about playing but have always put off learning, and remembering to remain socially active are some of the best ways to keep your brain young, thriving and healthy.
Sleep On It…For a Better Brain
Getting regular sleep is also extremely important to building all of these neuronal connections and making sure that you remain stress-free throughout the day. In fact, just missing a little bit of sleep can wreak real havoc on your ability to stay focused.
To put things in perspective, consider that staying awake for 18 hours or more is equivalent to a blood alcohol concentration of .08%, or the legal limit. The long term effects of sleep deprivation are even more alarming since poor sleep has been linked to everything from stress and cardiovascular disease (both related to each other) to high blood pressure and an increased risk for developing Alzheimer's later in life.
You know that the connection between sleep, cognitive health and heart health is deep when you see that those suffering from sleep apnea have a much higher risk of memory issues and developing dementia down the road.
Sleep and Brain Health
Getting quality sleep has been shown to boost your short-term memory and decision making ability throughout the day. It's important to get 6 to 8 hours of sleep no matter how old you are in order to stay sharp for the day ahead, but adolescents really seem to need extra sleep.
Adding to evidence that lost sleep in children can hurt their cognitive performance, it's now been shown that adolescents who are sleep deprived make three times as many mistakes on attention tasks as adults. The bottom line is that we could all benefit from more shut-eye.
Putting It All Together
While there's obviously no exact formula for improving your cognitive function, combining some of the cognitive improvement steps above (e.g., learning an instrument and staying socially active) with a healthy diet, improved sleep and aerobic exercise synergistically increases the benefits of everything involved!