Brain Health Basics
Four tips to maintain a high-performing brain, from four leaders in the field
By Martha Kempner, December 19, 2016
As interest in brain health increases, we hear lots of advice about how to stay sharp as we age. We’ve been told to sleep more or maybe less, get rid of stress, take up running, avoid certain foods or spend hours each day doing Sudoku. Some of this advice is good, but some is not supported by research. In truth, the keys to keeping our brains fit are very similar to what we already know about keeping our bodies healthy—eat well, exercise, and get the right amount of sleep. To learn more, Scientific American Custom Media asked experts which factors they view as most critical to caring for our brains today and optimizing their function long-term.
“Probably the most important issue is to get sufficient sleep,” says Randy Nelson, chair of the department of neuroscience at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Sleep is critical to maintain optimal cognitive performance, as well as mood. Too much or too little sleep does not support good brain health. Everyone has an optimal level of sleep. This can usually be determined when you’re on vacation and there are no clocks, stressors or other distractions. How much do you sleep by day three or four? This is likely your optimal level.” Nelson adds that good sleep hygiene involves avoiding exposure to short-wavelength light—also known as blue light—after 7 pm. Yes, that means putting away the phone and turning off the TV much earlier than most of us do now. Another sleep-supporting tip he recommends: “Make the sleeping environment light-proof, either through the use of sleep masks or black-out curtains.”
“Controlling stress and managing depression can benefit the brain in multiple ways,” says Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, director of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. “Stress and depression alter brain function. In addition, they promote behavior that is not brain-healthy: poorer sleep, unhealthy diets, sedentary behavior, and alcohol abuse.” What’s not all that helpful according to Kiecolt-Glaser, are “brain games.” “Training in specific cognitive tasks will help performance on those particular tasks, but will not generalize to unrelated tasks,” she says. “On the other hand, general involvement in more demanding cognitive activities clearly benefits the brain.”
“There is good evidence that nutrition is important for protecting the brain against neurodegenerative changes that occur with age and the development of brain diseases,” says Martha Clare Morris, director of the section of nutrition and nutritional epidemiology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. And she has some good news for the bread and pasta lovers among us. Whole grains are among the brain-friendly foods in the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet, developed by Morris and her colleagues.
Fitness & Physical Activity
“There is now reasonably strong evidence from epidemiological studies, human-intervention trials and animal studies that physical activity and exercise can enhance cognitive and brain health throughout the lifespan—for both folks with and without various diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and cancer,” says Arthur Kramer, senior vice provost for research and graduate education at Northeastern University in Boston. But don’t start training for that marathon yet. Kramer says that we don’t have to be serious athletes to get the brain benefits of exercise: “Modest increases in physical activity and exercise can result in improvements in brain and cognitive health.”
Better Brains, Better Bodies was created by Scientific American Custom Media, a division separate from its board of editors, working in partnership with Ohio State University.