In a couple of terrifying instances, I have experienced - once right in front of me - what it is like when your brain malfunctions, short circuits if you will, and stops working as it should. Both top the list as the scariest days of my life - I won’t get into the details, but taking care of this complex organ a part of our central nervous system, if it isn’t already, should start to be a standout priority for you.
Age by Age What Happens to Our Brain As We Get Older
A quote from MIT properly summarizes a twenty something year old’s brain: “As a number of researchers have put it, 'the rental car companies have it right.' The brain isn't fully mature at 16, when we are allowed to drive, or at 18, when we are allowed to vote, or at 21, when we are allowed to drink, but closer to 25, when we are allowed to rent a car” (MIT). Our brains are not fully mature until our mid-twenties. By at least 25 years old, “the regions in the frontal lobe that are responsible for judgment, planning, weighing risks and decision-making finally finish developing” (Canyon Ranch). What does this all mean? The Wall Street Journal suggests, “people are better equipped to make major life decisions in their late 20s than earlier in the decade. The brain, once thought to be fully grown after puberty, is still evolving into its adult shape well into a person's third decade, pruning away unused connections and strengthening those that remain, scientists say" (Scientific American).
Research says these are the best years of our lives, especially at age 33 reveals a study mentioned in Time magazine; “Some studies suggest that 35 is the 'best age' and that real happiness begins at age 33. People older than 100 years in overwhelming numbers regard their 30s as being the best decade of their lives” (The Huffington Post). Although our 30s are described by science and several studies to be our happiest, there’s a lot that starts to break down in our brains ; “Myelination, the fatty insulation around neurons, peaks in our late 20s and then declines. Because myelin allows electrical signals to travel through the brain more quickly and efficiently, its loss means it takes longer to connect a face with a name, a book with an author, or any other facts. Its loss also makes the brain "noisier," explains neuroscientist Henry Mahncke: 'It’s like a radio that is no longer precisely tuned to a station. It takes the brain more effort to find that signal, and that takes resources away from memory and thinking' (Newsweek). Speed of thought, memory and reasoning start to decline within this joyful decade.
Midlife: 40s and 50s
According to studies from the British Medical Journal, “middle-age participants experienced fading sharpness in memory and verbal fluency—the ability to say words quickly in a specific category” (Canyon Ranch). While you may have predicted only more erosion, 40-50 year olds actually acquire new abilities when it comes to our brain function; “It seems that the middle-aged mind not only maintains many of the abilities of youth but actually acquires some new ones. The adult brain seems to be capable of rewiring itself well into middle age, incorporating decades of experiences and behaviors. Research suggests, for example, the middle-aged mind is calmer, less neurotic and better able to sort through social situations. Some middle-agers even have improved cognitive abilities,” says Dr. Patricia Reuter-Lorenz, of the University of Michigan (APA). In all, “moral decision-making, regulating emotions and reading social situations—have been shown to improve beginning with middle age. Starting at around age 40, people tend to remember positive images more than negative ones—a trend that continues until at least age 80” (Canyon Ranch).
Why and How Our Brain Degrades?
I'll touch on two ways our brain degrades, chemical imbalances and protective layer loss.
Getting older is, "the number one cause of mild cognitive impairment”, or that “light but noticeable and measurable decline in cognitive abilities, including memory and thinking skills” (The Atlantic | Alzheimer's Association).
Other factors besides aging can lead to inefficiencies and these factors are linked to chemical imbalances in the brain; For example, “any type of addiction, including to alcohol, street drugs (marijuana, cocaine, Ecstasy, ketamine, hallucinogens, inhalants), overeating, gambling, or even shopping, are related to imbalanced dopamine. Most illegal street drugs tamper with memory, cloud judgment, limit attention, and increase forgetfulness” (The Atlantic) .
Mild cognitive impairment is often linked to deficiencies, in certain types of vitamin B; "low levels of these and other vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants in the diet can contribute to cognitive difficulties such as poor judgment or memory loss. Recent studies show that the progression toward Alzheimer's can be slowed or even reversed by taking the proper amounts of antioxidants, either through making better food choices or through supplementation” (The Atlantic).
Protective Layer Loss
Essential for the functioning of our brain and for the conduction of impulses, there is a fatty membrane that surrounds our nerve cells called the myelin sheath; The myelin sheath is a protective covering on the nerves in the brain. Damaged or destroyed myelin sheaths impede the nerves from sending messages to other parts of the brain. This results in loss of functioning to those areas of the brain (Cancer.org). As we age, “some myelin sheaths exhibit degenerative changes. It is suggested that such degenerative changes lead to cognitive decline because they cause changes in conduction velocity, resulting in a disruption of the normal timing” (NIH). In other words the protection around some of our nerve cells declines and that leads to a decline in our cognitive abilities.
Which leads me to my next topic, what can we be doing to slow down the inefficiencies in our brain that come?
10 Brain Strengtheners
So if chemical imbalances and a lessening of the protective layer around neurons is culprit to brain aging, what can be done to regenerate or reverse this if anything? Here are 10 ways to boost your brain health.
1) Read and Learn New Things
Frank Lloyd Wright designed a building at the age of 89, Queen Victoria began learning a new language at the age of 68 and further, “scientists are particularly noted for being sharp and productive long into the late 80s and 90s” (Psychology Today).
There are studies that show, “that brain cells can grow and learning can improve throughout life”, but like a workout for the body, you must challenge your mind to combat cognitive decline; “Studies show that mentally stimulating activities may help reverse cognitive decline.. Do stimulating activities that you enjoy: Read, write, put together a jigsaw puzzle, work on crosswords…it all counts” (Canyon Ranch). We now know brain function need not decline with age, at least for people who stay healthy and mentally active. Research shows that a lifetime of vigorous learning helps protect the brain against aging.
2) Omega 3
The human brain is, “composed mostly of essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, but people tend to eat more foods containing mostly omega-6 fatty acids” (Livestrong); “Increasing essential fatty acids [like omega-3 and omega-6 provide] the body with the building blocks it needs to build and repair myelin” (Cancer.org). “Fatty acids enhance the sheath's fat content” (Healthfully.com). You can up your omega-3 intake by eating fish, but beware of high levels of mercury. You can also take supplements. I offer an option in the WTT wellness shop. Before taking any supplements consult your doctor.
3) Reduce Toxins
"Reduce chemical and heavy metal toxins in your body. Lower the amount of mercury in the body from seafood sources as well as dental fillings. Limit your exposure to x-rays, insecticides and organic solvents" (Cancer.org).
4) B Vitamins
Supplement or make sure you eat foods that are high in B vitamins; “Vitamin B-1, also called thiamin, and B-12 are physical components of the myelin sheath” (Healthfully.com).
Vitamin B-12: “is an essential vitamin for the proper functioning and development of the brain and nerve cells. It plays an important role in the maintenance of the sheaths that cover and protect the nerves of the central and the peripheral nervous system, ensuring fast and effective nerve-impulse transmission” (Brain Blogger). I offer Vitamin B-12 drops in the the WTT wellness shop. Before taking any supplements consult your doctor.
I covered the benefits and reasons to exercise in week 6, but “exercise pumps blood to the brain and encourages the growth of new brain cells—and you don’t have to spend hours at the gym to get the positive effects. Research shows that regular aerobic exercise, like walking or cycling, for 30 minutes a day reduces brain cell loss” (Canyon Ranch).
6) Social Bonds
Community and friends are important for the brain; “Invest in your bonds with friends and loved ones. Experts suspect that social interaction requires you to engage the areas of the brain involved in memory and attention, the same mental processes that are used in many cognitive tasks. Furthermore, one study revealed that activities that combine social interaction with physical and mental activity may help prevent dementia”(Canyon Ranch).
A study from the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease explains that high levels of antioxidants allow for, “better cognitive performance during aging” (Wellness Resources). Antioxidants are, “natural compounds [that] neutralize natural byproducts, [or] free radicals, of cellular metabolism that would otherwise disrupt a cell. They also help remove foreign toxins like heavy metals, environmental pollutants, and those introduced by food processing” (Prohealth). Studies show that, "adults regularly consuming .9 pounds total weight of fresh fruit and vegetables every day produced higher antioxidant levels of carotenes and vitamin E, less free radical damage, and better cognitive function” (Wellness Resources). An argument to consider a plant based diet? Perhaps so.
8) Vitamin D
There is research out that proves, “Vitamin D [receptors boost] the regeneration of myelin (55)” (Optimal Living). You can get Vitamin D from sun exposure, wear sunscreen, but you can also supplement. I have an option in the WTT wellness shop. Make sure to consult your doctor before taking any new supplements.
9) Listen to Music
If it is slow at work, I pop on my headphones and listen to classical music; “Music is structural, mathematical and architectural. It’s based on relationships between one note and the next. You may not be aware of it, but your brain has to do a lot of computing to make sense of it...If you want to firm up your body, head to the gym. If you want to exercise your brain, listen to music”, says an article out of Johns Hopkins Medicine (Hopkins Medicine).
10) Get at Least 7 Hours of Quality Sleep
In studies, “researchers found that the production of the myelin-forming cells increased the most during deep, rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep. Melatonin, your body’s sleep hormone, has also been shown to promote myelination by significantly reducing inflammation in the brain” (Optimal Living). Tip for improving sleep: get off of your cell phone before bed, it produces blue light and, “blue light suppresses your body’s production of melatonin”. Also consider sleeping with ear plugs and blackout curtains (Optimal Living).