When we reach our late-30s, we start to experience the first effects of ageing – a few wrinkles, sags and grey hairs. Through shifting hormones in our 50s to arthritis in our 60s, by the time we reach our 70s or 80s, we may have a diminished memory function and a lack of cellular renewal as a result of weakened neural function and DNA replication.
But maybe we won’t. Experts speaking at the AustralAsian Academy of Anti-Ageing Medicine Conference in Melbourne say these unpleasant signs of ageing can be avoided. Professor Paul Taylor at the University of San Francisco provides seven tactics to boost the brain so we can skip vitally along the path of healthy longevity.
1. KNOW IT
First, says Taylor, we need to understand what we are dealing with. Although the brain is the director or conductor of the body, it is totally dependant upon it. The Western medicine model is slowly moving away from the dualistic notions that separate our body from our minds, and adopting an integrative model that considers the brain and body as a single entity. Things that occur in the brain have an effect within the body, and vice versa. As knowledge disciplines converge, we are obtaining a clearer understanding of the sophisticated, interdependent systems that occur within our body-mind.
The brain is designed to keep us alive and away from danger, says Taylor. When a potential threat or reward is sensed in our environment, or if there is something of emotional importance to us, a response is triggered from the non-conscious brain, also called the basal brain. This sends out signals that create a physical response and alerts the conscious brain to react by stimulating a thought or conscious activity. Our ability to think, consider and reflect on things occurs in the frontal lobe. This is where the third-level function of the brain occurs, which enables us to reflect and respond in a considered rather than an emotionally driven manner. This is also known as executive thought.
The brain has the characteristic of plasticity. The notion that brain cells cannot be regrown has been overturned. It’s now proven that neurological stem cells float in the cerebral spinal fluid, and the brain can use these when it forms new neural pathways. We can create new neural pathways and thus new ways of thinking by linking in new cells and reworking old brain cells into new networks.
2. TRAIN IT
Neural pathways change permanently in response to training. Cardiovascular, strength training (without machines) and complex movements, particularly movements that cross the midline, are all paramount in training the brain, says Taylor.
The benefits of exercise to the brain are numerous. For a start there’s an increase in the flow of blood and therefore oxygen and nutrition to the brain, which provides sustenance to the brain cells. Additionally, exercise stimulates a whole family of growth factors in the brain, such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor. These factors support capillary networks and assist with the development of memory and learning.
An older person can improve their brain function by 30 per cent if they walk 600m a day, explains Taylor. However, younger people need to aspire towards intense exercise to really enhance their brain function. As a rule of thumb, Taylor, who also runs a personal training academy, suggests that people should feel some level of discomfort when they exercise. One must leave the comfort zone and continually make adaptations to the imposed stressors in order for growth and development of the brain. At the very least, one should be out of breath and ideally, sweat. The return of investment from intense exercise is much higher than from moderate exercise.
The best time for you to do exercise is the time that you will actually do it, says Taylor. However, studies in schools in the US and UK show an improvement in both learning and memory outcomes when children exercise in the morning.
Validated alpha brain training machines have shown some 4 per cent improvement with specific brain functions. However, having a validation of the machine attaining an alpha wave state is paramount, Taylor emphasises. An alpha state helps one to enter the ‘zone’, or achieve a state of relaxed concentration where one is productive, alert and focused.
Also train your brain with novelty and complexity, suggests Taylor. To stimulate new neural pathway growth in the brain, one needs to provide interesting stimulation. Learning a musical instrument or a new language provides a good level of complexity. Do different things every day, or the same things in new, different ways.
3. FEED IT
The right stuff to feed the brain essentially follows the traditional Mediterranean diet, one rich in vegetables, fish and wholegrains, and low in meat and sugar.
In general, choose foods with a low-HI index. Australian GP John Tickell coined the term Human Interference Factor, to highlight the plight of many foods through the food processing chain. Go for the natural choice where you can.
Olive oil should be used with abandon, as it helps to resolve inflammation, a foundation stone of most, if not all, chronic diseases. Eat red meat once a month and eat more fish to increase your intake of anti-inflammtory omega-3 essential fatty acids.
4. DEFEND IT
To prevent Alzheimer’s disease and age-related dementia, protect your brain from toxins and damage, says Taylor.
Stop smoking. The chemicals in tobacco and cigarettes are detrimental to brain function and damaging to the cardiovascular system.
No binge drinking. Alcohol is a depressant because it increases the neurotransmitter GABA, which acts like Valium. To balance this rise in GABA, the brain produces a load of excitatory neurotransmitters, called glutamate. When the alcohol stops, the GABA level drops quickly, leaving an excess of glutamate in the brain. This needs to be reduced, so a mechanism involving a change in calcium and magnesium balance in the brain reduces the glutamate concentration, but this kills the cells. The B vitamins, in particular thiamine or vitamin B1, are critical to assist in rebalancing your brain after binge drinking.
Avoid artificial sweeteners containing aspartame, as it increases the excitatory glutamate produced by the brain.
Avoid getting addicted. Addictions involve an increase and dependency on the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. Many drugs damage the brain electrically as well as chemically. Consuming fat and sugar-rich foods also increases serotonin and dopamine levels.
Sleep. Get at least 7 hours and 10 minutes of sleep every night. Any less and the brain will function on low mode all day. Growth hormone is released during sleep which supports growth and repair.
Helmet head. Wear a helmet when bike riding to reduce any chance of brain trauma, as injury to cells and tissues can follow blunt trauma to the brain.
5. BEFRIEND IT
Our brains need company. Developing a sense of community is crucial for healthy brain function. In fact, it has been shown that people can increase their longevity by five years for every social group they are involved in.
Meditation stimulates the happiness centre in the frontal cortex, or thinking brain area. Practising mediation over long periods provides multiple benefits on many levels. Giving thanks for what you have also makes a difference to your mental health.
6. MANAGE IT
Thoughts and emotions need to be well managed, says Taylor. Suppressed emotions and stress, when not managed or resolved, can develop into chronic illnesses.
The talking therapies involve the process of identifying and labelling emotional urges and recognising patterns. Talking therapies help to decrease the intensity of emotions and often allow us to manage them better.
Reappraise and reflect on life. Learn to look for the silver lining of any situation, and grow and learn from them each day.
7. CHANGE IT
The responsibility of optimising brain function rests with the individual. “No one will save you. No pill will save you. You have to do it for yourself,” says Taylor.
It’s important to break the negative cycles and habits that you have created or accepted. It’s possible to rewire the ‘plastic’ brain, and create more positive associations and patterns. By looking after our bodies and being dedicated to our training regimes, this rewiring becomes possible and positively inspiring.
“You are the expert in you,” says Taylor. It’s time to become the master of your mental development.