Although the brain isn't a muscle, exercise can stimulate its growth and regeneration in a similar way to a physical workout, providing greater muscularity. Research in the field of neuroplasticity has shown that many aspects of the brain can be altered, even into adulthood. Indeed, by building new brain tissue, it's possible to overcome cognitive impairment.
Recent studies have shown that physical exercise can improve brain functions. In one research paper published by Elsevier Inc., it was discovered that a key player in intracellular proteolysis – Cathepsin B – was found to be secreted in the body in greater quantities in runners than in people who had taken no exercise. Put simply, this means that the memory function of the human brain is improved by simply taking exercise.
Psychologists including Dr Matthew Edlund, who has published books such as Designed to Last, have pointed out that similar restorative effects on the brain which have been derived from physical activity have been found in other species, too.
So, should we work our brains like a muscle if we want to feel higher happiness in some cognitive training programme? Well, yes. But that's not the full story. For anyone wishing to overcome cognitive impairment, then other things, such as social activities, are just as important.
In all, there are five different categories to consider if you want to be happier in yourself and to avoid the sort of cognitive impairment problems such as memory loss and poor judgement that are all too prevalent in older age. Let's examine what we can all do to keep our brains in good condition so that we feel better about ourselves right now and in the future.
In fact, as far as your brain function is concerned, it matters little what you learn, so long as you keep engaging in learning itself. According to the Alzheimer's Association, a body which knows a thing or two about cognitive impairment, there are plenty of tasks we can give our brains which will guard against the condition in the future. According to the Association, formal education is known to reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Crucially, this is the case, no matter when it's taken in life.
If you think that attending classes is for children or for people who need to upskill during the early part of their career, then you're right. However, that learning is also for middle-aged people and recently retired folk is equally as valid. Regarding happiness and fighting off cognitive impairment, there can be few better tactics than learning about something you're already interested in a formal way.
Picture perfect: learning a new skill can help reduce cognitive impairment
Cognitive training might take the form of learning a foreign language ahead of an overseas holiday, or studying a little art history to make that next trip to the gallery a more informed experience.
However, if a classroom environment is not for you, then why not consider other methods of engaging your brain with new skills. Meditation, bridge classes or logic puzzles will train your brain to work in new ways, especially games which need you to think strategically. Such activities have been widely researched in study programmes – many of them indicating clear beneficial outcomes for the brain.
Selfless though it might seem, joining a local community volunteer group might be the best thing you ever do for yourself. Like cognitive training, being social creates better brain functions because it forces the brain to work in specific ways.
If you're locked away from the world to an extent, then not being sociable can become a habit. It may lead to the brain's neural pathways shifting over time to the extent that you never feel like engaging in social activities again. To prevent this, take affirmative steps to ensure you're not cut off from your neighbours, family and friends.
“Regarding happiness and fighting off cognitive impairment, there can be few better tactics than learning about something new you're interested in.”
Taking a role in your local community does not merely derive benefits for those around you; it will help your brain to remain active in a meaningful way, which will help to prevent neural problems in future. Of course, just being around people is often enough to induce the brain's chemicals that make us feel better about ourselves, so-called happiness hormones. Chatting, interacting, learning and teaching are all things that will help to keep your brain active, too.
Throwing yourself into a new group is an excellent way of proceeding but – let's be honest – this isn't for everyone. Some of us are shy, and this great leap can seem too much, to begin with, anyway. If you want to take care of your brain, then take smaller steps to start with. Why not pick up the phone to a friend you haven't spoken to in a while and just ask them how they are? It's a great way to get the ball rolling, and strong social connections are a main ingredient for a good life.
Get chatty: reduce cognitive impairment through being social
Like any part of our bodies, brains are made of the matter we consume. Without the right ingredients, it's hard for the body to make the right proteins and enzymes for regeneration. In other words, the brain needs you to eat healthily for it to continue functioning correctly as you age and avoid cognitive impairment.
On the face of it, eating healthily for a part of the body to remain healthy is obvious, right? However, you should bear in mind that a healthy brain is also likelier to mean a happier life, so it's not just about your physical well-being, but your mental well-being, too.
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According to a study by Martha Clare Morris, et al, of the Department of Internal Medicine at the Rush University Medical Centre in Chicago, a hybrid of a Mediterranean and a so-called stop hypertension diet will slow down cognitive decline. Morris' work dealt with 923 participants who were aged from 58 to 98 years and engaged in what is often referred to as a DASH diet.
Essentially, such a diet is low in trans fats, rich in potassium and calcium, and requires a smaller salt intake. By limiting dairy and meat in favour of vegetables, whole grains and fruit, you can eat your way to a healthier brain.
“The brain needs you to eat healthily for it to continue functioning correctly as you age and avoid cognitive impairment.”
Long considered to be good for the brain, the consumption of fish is also useful. According to a 2014 paper in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, baked or broiled fish eaten on a weekly basis will mean you have more grey matter – on average – compared with people who don't have this level of consumption. Bear in mind that fried fish did not make up any part of the research, however.
Also, the fatty acids, like omega-3, found in fish seem to work better when consumed as food rather than as a dietary supplement, as reported in Time magazine. Perhaps this suggests fish have some unknown improving effect on brains?
Dish the fish: it's a great brain-boosting food
People who are physically active tend to have better brain health. As mentioned already, recent scientific studies have shown the connection between running and brain regeneration, but that's far from the full story.
Of course, activities like swimming, dancing or even brisk walking will all release endorphins into the body. Not only is it good for the brain to become a little breathless due to exercise, it makes you feel happier due to the release of these endorphins.
Some scientists have suggested that the body functions this way because the build-up of carbon dioxide in the body caused by exercise is balanced by the kick of natural opioids. In other words, your body rewards you with a natural high if you exercise. Few people who take regular exercise would argue that they don't feel better as a result of working out, not just while they do it, but for a significant time afterwards.
“Activities like swimming, dancing or even brisk walking will all release endorphins into the body.”
It's important to note that exercise is not just about maintaining good cognitive abilities. It can help the brain recover where it might have been going into decline. According to research by Elise Wogensen, et al., of the Department of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, exercise in a large number of cases can promote cognitive recovery after an injury that the brain has sustained.
Although there are some factors which are still to be established as to how this works, Wogensen's work indicates strongly that physical activity and restoring brain functions are linked, and that the rehabilitation of 'lost' brain functions is possible.
Work out wonder: exercise releases endorphins, your 'happy' hormones
According to the Alzheimer's Association, the factors that are already known to impact on heart health and which combat heart disease are also fully linked to delaying or even preventing the onset of dementia. One of these is taking frequent exercise.
Other measures include stopping smoking and reducing stress. Heart health can also be maintained better by keeping on top of obesity levels and of reducing blood cholesterol, both important to future brain health, too. Lastly, it should be said that anyone who has diabetes should manage this in a way that is conducive to good heart health. If so, then the brain is likely to be kept in good condition as well. ●
Main image: colourbox.com
Ed Gould is a UK-based journalist and freelance writer. He's a practitioner of Reiki.
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