Seven ways to build your brain health into old age


Seven ways to build brain health

1. Stay physically active

The mind-body connection is well-proven. Staying physically active leads to better emotional health. Our bodies are made to move. When we are penned up and sedentary all day, our mood is affected. Movement and activity raises our heart beat and forces blood and oxygen to our vital organs, including the brain. Movement also engages the senses, stimulating brain activity and brain health. The National Institutes of Health recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week. That’s a half hour every weekday, which we can certainly make time for.

2. Maintain social connections

The health impact of loneliness is well documented. The effect of loneliness and isolation is said to be the equivalent of smoking a half-pack of cigarettes a day. We humans are social creatures, meant to share experiences and interact with others. If we deny ourselves those experiences the effect is social and emotional malnutrition. Men, in particular, often lack supportive relationships that help them deal with emotional problems or problem behaviors.

3. Keep a positive mental outlook

Sometimes we believe that a positive mental outlook is a result of good things happening to us. “Good things” can include a well-paying job, nice home, supportive co-workers. But evidence shows that a positive mental outlook is not the effect of these circumstances, but rather is the main cause and driver of the good things that happen to us.

The positive psychology movement suggests that happiness is a cause of good things in life and not simply a result of success or good outcomes. “Happy people make good things happen,” says James Westphal, M.D., a vice president and medical director with Carelon Behavioral Health. He added that such people are resilient and able to bounce back from adversity, large and small. “Happiness, resilience and good social relationships are buffers against the damaging effects of disappointments and setbacks,” Dr. Westphal added.

4. Cultivate a sense of gratitude

According to Dr. Westphal, the emerging science of gratitude has produced important findings. “From childhood to old age, accumulating evidence documents the wide array of psychological, physical and relational benefits associated with gratitude,” he says.

Dr. Westphal points to data that people are 25% happier if they keep gratitude journals, sleep 30 minutes more per evening, and exercise 33% more each week compared to people who do not develop these habits . “Lives marked by frequent positive emotions of joy, love, and gratitude are up to seven years longer than lives bereft of these pleasant feelings,” Dr. Westphal adds.

5. Embrace mental challenges

Many of have heard of the busy executive who while working lived a busy and accomplished life, then retired only to experience a sudden decline in health. Often we attribute this to disengagement with responsibilities and everyday challenges. “Humans are hard wired for constant mental activity,” says Dr. Westphal.

To age into vitality, it is recommended that we stay mentally active, which means challenging ourselves. Many people embark on a second career after retirement, capitalizing on their business skills to manage or consult for nonprofits or community organizations. Taking up a new activity, such as golf or pickleball, can also be mentally stimulating, because they require adapting new skills and mental models.

6. Establish a healthy daily routine

There’s an adage: “You make your habits, then your habits make you.” Our everyday behaviors shape who we are, and adopting good behaviors has a positive effect on mental well-being. Dr. Westphal points out: “interventions to positively change behavior positively change well-being.” We do not have to adopt a monastic lifestyle, but there is ample evidence that healthy routines lead to brain health.

Such healthy behaviors include eating right, adopting healthy sleep habits, regular exercise and an active social life. There also is correlation between religious faith and well-being. “Religious faith matters”, says Dr. Westphal. “People for whom religion is important are happier and cope better with stress compared to non-believers”

7. Connect with a larger purpose

In his book Drive, Daniel Pink writes there are three factors necessary to keep us engaged in the workplace and in life: mastery, autonomy, and purpose. Mastery and autonomy make us feel competent and in control of our destiny. But purpose connects us to something larger than ourselves. Purpose is our life’s mission which enables us to overcome obstacles and cope with bad days.

Purpose is the North Star that guides our life decisions. When we are acting consistent with our purpose, we feel resonant and in tune with the universe. We feel authentic and true, regardless of external difficulties or noise. Finding your purpose may be a lifetime endeavor. But once found and recognized, purpose can provide a path to well-being, optimism and longevity.