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The human brain. It’s the body’s most complex organ, comprised of 100 billion neurons that transfer information to nerves at speeds of up to 360 km/hour.1 Every day, the brain generates an estimated 50,000 thoughts, and more than 100,000 chemical reactions take place every second.2 While the average brain weighs just roughly 3 pounds (making up only about 2 percent of an individual’s total bodyweight), it is the main command centre that controls all of the body’s functions and performs vital operations such as the beating of the heart, breathing, maintaining blood pressure and releasing hormones.3 The countless actions the brain carries out as the major control network for the entire body are remarkable and serve to highlight the critical importance of taking the right steps to help promote and sustain brain health at every stage of life.

In Canada, it’s estimated one in three individuals will experience a brain or nervous system disease, disorder or injury at some point in their lives, and 50 percent of all Canadians have been impacted by some form of brain disorder, either themselves or through a family member.4 With an aging population across the country, these numbers are only expected to grow. And though neuroscience is still generally considered to be in its early stages, brain health is increasingly coming to the forefront, with growing research and studies indicating a number of modifiable risk factors when it comes to brain-aging diseases and conditions. For men and women of all ages, certain lifestyle considerations and choices may have a significant impact on the well-being of the brain, and two central areas to focus on are physical activity and nutrition.

group running in street

The role of physical activity

For many individuals, exercise is often associated with the cardiovascular and muscular benefits it brings, but it’s also important to understand how physical activity has a direct positive impact on brain health. In fact, research seems to indicate that of all lifestyle areas, physical activity may be the most important for maintaining brain health, especially for women.5 A main connection between exercise and brain health is related to neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s capacity to form new neural connections. When individuals engage in physical activity, this helps trigger the growth, repair and improvement of neural connections and at the same time slows aging and the onset of brain-aging diseases. Another key aspect is blood flow; in general, as individuals age, vascular changes begin to take place in the brain, which can decrease blood flow. Exercise that boosts your heart rate helps to combat this, pumping more blood to the brain, and therefore nourishing cells with nutrients and oxygen.6

When it comes to physical activity, the Alzheimer Society of Canada stresses the importance of having the right perspective: Adopting a more active lifestyle doesn’t mean all-out, vigorous exercise every day of the week, but rather that smaller, reasonable changes and steps towards improved fitness may go a long way in making long-term, sustainable improvements. In this regard, possible recommendations include:

  • Adding simple activity to your daily routine, such as walking to the store instead of driving, taking the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator, and for those who have desk jobs, scheduling a few minutes every hour to get up and move around.
  • Choosing activities and sports that you enjoy and that you can do with family or other individuals.
  • Joining a team sport or fitness group to also gain the brain benefits of social interaction.
  • Using wearable fitness trackers, step counters or mobile fitness apps for motivation and to track progress.7

Note: As individual needs differ, it is crucial to discuss your personal fitness situation with a qualified healthcare practitioner.

Fast fact: Staying hydrated, especially while exercising, is crucial for brain function. The brain is 73 percent water, and research indicates it takes only 2 percent dehydration to negatively affect attention, memory and other cognitive skills.8

mother daughter cutting vegetables

Where nutrition comes into play

Given the complex and intricate nature of the brain, along with the remarkable, nonstop work it performs, there’s a crucial need for regular and adequate fuel, and this fuel comes from the energy and nutrients individuals eat and drink. More specifically, dietary choices significantly affect brain chemicals that impact mood, behaviour, thought processes, learning ability and reactions, and key nutrients make a vital contribution to how well the brain works, both over the short- and long-term.

Within the brain, 60 percent of the solid matter is fat (and the working surfaces of your brain’s neurons are composed of thin layers of fat). Furthermore, 30 percent of solid brain matter is protein, which is comprised of various amino acids used primarily to develop and maintain the neurotransmitters (neuron connectors), which they do with the help of certain vitamins and minerals.9 With these facts in mind, it becomes important to turn a focus to beneficial types, amounts and balance of fats; optimal types and sources of protein; and, key vitamins and minerals, as these may have a considerable effect on brain health.

While the Mediterranean diet (focusing on vegetables, fish, lean meats and olive oil) and the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, concentrating on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, lean meats and legumes) are two fairly well-known and long-studied diets with proven benefits for heart and cognitive wellness, there is a more recently developed food plan gaining recognition for its brain-boosting benefits. The MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) combines the two food plans, emphasizing foods specifically linked to brain health, and research indicates for those who follow it, there’s a 53 percent lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s.10 For more information on the MIND diet, please visit the Heart and Stroke website.

pile of vegetables

7 key nutrients for brain health

Nutrient Description and key functions Food sources
Omega-3 fatty acids (ALA, DHA, EPA)
  • Comprised of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). DHA and EPA generally form a high percentage of the brain matter itself.
  • Typically lead to improved concentration, learning ability and memory.
  • Aid in fetal and childhood brain development.
  • Help combat brain diseases, poor memory and Alzheimer’s in later life.
Salmon, mackerel, sardines, fresh tuna, flaxseed oil, hempseed oil
Vitamin E
  • Vitamin with antioxidant properties (antioxidants help combat free radicals, which are molecular byproducts of normal living that can be harmful in excess and that can attack brain cells).
  • Antioxidants also reduce the risk of cognitive loss, including memory, judgement and reasoning.
Olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds, plant oils
  • Group of phytonutrients (plant chemicals) that have antioxidant effects and offer benefits through cell signalling pathways.
  • Anthocyanins (a type of flavonoid) may boost memory function.
Blackberries, blueberries, cherries, grapes, olives, citrus fruits
  • Vitamins B6, B12 and folic acid help reduce levels of a compound called homocysteine in the blood. Elevated levels of homocysteine are associated with increased risk of stroke, cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.
Chicken, fish, eggs, dark leafy greens
Vitamin C
  • Vitamin with antioxidant properties that also increases blood flow to the brain.
  • Helps increase mental agility and protect against age-related brain degeneration including dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Blackcurrants, red peppers, citrus fruits, broccoli
  • Vitamin-like component of the fatty acid, lecithin, used to maintain cell membranes and transmit nerve impulses.
  • Essential for brain development in young individuals; may help prevent memory loss in older adults.
Eggs, soybeans, beef, chicken livers, spinach
  • An amino acid (building block of protein) used to make neurotransmitters that enable brain cells to communicate.
  • Especially important for increasing alertness.
Lean meat, eggs, fish, cheese, poultry

Note: As each individual differs, it is crucial to discuss your personal health needs and situation with a qualified healthcare practitioner.

Sources: Brain Food: The essential guide to Omega-3 and the other nutrients that can improve brain power. Gemma Reece. Paragon Inc.

For more information on various lifestyle aspects and considerations to help improve and sustain brain health, the Alzheimer Society of Canada offers useful information and tips on their website.

woman listening to music on couch

Menopause and memory

Recent research has confirmed the memory problems and brain fog many women experience during and after menopause may be a result of the drop in estrogen levels. In a study conducted by Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, it was found that there is a decline in two key areas of memory among post-menopausal women: the ability to learn new information (specifically relationships between unrelated items, like a face and a name) and retrieving new memories.11 Two other key studies that focused on groups of women before, during and after menopause also found that memory declines (specifically memory for words) and that hot flashes cause small white matter changes in the brain that negatively impact memory.12 These findings reinforce the heightened importance for women to make positive lifestyle changes as early as possible to help protect brain health long-term.

Note: As each individual differs, it is crucial to discuss your personal health needs and situation with a qualified healthcare practitioner.

Promoting cognitive well-being at every life stage

Key areas of focus in your…

20s and 30s: This is generally the most ideal time to lower risk factors, so it’s very beneficial to establish positive habits when it comes to physical activity, nutrition, sleep and stress management. Taking steps to protect brain health now also paves the way for these habits to become long-term.

40s and 50s: This is often a time when many individuals are facing a number of overlapping obligations — professionally, personally, family-related or otherwise — so stress reduction should be a high priority. Research indicates that untreated depression in midlife increases risk of dementia in later life. Consider exploring meditation, yoga, journaling, music or tai chi as possible methods to reduce stress.

60s and above: As individuals shift closer to and into retirement, it becomes increasingly important to maintain social connections with family and friends, and to promote mental stimulation through a variety of activities. Consider volunteering or pursuing programs at your local community or active living centre for face-to-face interactions. The Alzheimer Society of Canada also offers Brain Booster activities on their website.

Source: http://womensbrainhealth.org/think-twice/do-you-know-how-to-keep-your-brain-healthy

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