Neurologist Offers 5 Ways To Optimize Brain Health In The New Year

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In deciding on a New Year’s resolution, consider committing to optimizing your brain health. According to Forbes Health, the top New Year’s resolution for 2023 was to improve mental health, while the top resolution for 2024 is to improve physical health. Other popular resolutions for 2024 include losing weight and improving one’s diet. The resolution to enhance brain health should be at the top of everyone’s list for the new year since it will entail improving physical and mental health. Additionally, optimizing brain health facilitates fulfilling other common resolutions like making more money, getting a new job and improving relationships. People can develop problems with their brains at any age, so it is never too early to pick up good habits to optimize brain health.

Social Connection

Spending time with family and friends is an excellent way to keep your brain healthy. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has stated that loneliness is at the heart of the growing mental health crisis. The surgeon general’s advisory on the healing effects of social connection and community reported that lacking social connection is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Additionally, poor social relationships can increase the risk of stroke by 32% and increase the risk of dementia by 50% in older adults. Studies have also shown that lonely people are more likely to have depression and anxiety. Toxic relationships can also negatively impact your brain health, so the new year may be a good time to terminate such relationships.

One study found the following factors put people at risk of social isolation: Female gender, lower education level, divorced, self-rated poor health status, depression, lack of social support, inadequate cognitive function, and underlying disorders. While everyone needs to work on their social connections, people who fit the above categories should be even more vigilant about enhancing them.

Children are not immune from the impact of social isolation. The surgeon general’s report also showed that children lacking social connections are more likely to experience depression and anxiety. Additionally, they are more likely to attempt and commit suicide. An increasing area of concern is screen time, which may promote social isolation at a young age. Parents should provide their children with alternatives to screen time, like promoting nature walks, playing board games, outdoor play and other activities that encourage creativity. Fostering these good habits can have a lasting impact on a developing child’s brain.

Exercise And Physical Activity

Engaging in physical activity will work wonders to keep your brain healthy. Activity that increases your heart rate helps to boost your circulation. Studies have shown that students who regularly engage in physical activity, including organized sports, have better academic performance than peers who do not regularly engage in physical activity. Additionally, children and adults who regularly engage in physical activity are less likely to have mood and anxiety problems and more likely to sleep well at night. Playing sports also boosts a child’s confidence, which may translate to success later in life. An additional benefit of physical activity is that increased physical activity is associated with a lower likelihood of developing cognitive problems like Alzheimer’s dementia later in life.

During office visits, I like to go over what the person’s body is able to do. Based on their physical status, we can come up with exercises that will work for them. For some people it may be a daily walk, for others it may be exercises in their seat or bed. For those who are able to be more active, more rigorous exercise programs can be considered. In some instances, I will recommend a physical therapist or personal trainer.

Sleep

Getting a good night’s sleep is extremely important for optimizing brain function. Sleep has many benefits, but I will cover just a few here. Studies have suggested that memory consolidation occurs during the deeper stages of sleep, and sleep clears out toxins from the brain, including those associated with Alzheimer’s dementia. Sleep enhances cognition and improves one’s ability to multi-task; getting a good night’s sleep also enables people to be more creative. Disruptive sleep is associated with depression and other mental health conditions.

The amount of sleep you should get is variable based on your age. The Centers for Disease Control advises that students should get a good night’s sleep to help them stay focused, improve concentration and improve academic performance. Additionally, a Harvard study found that sleep deficiency in adults was linked to dementia.

Healthy Diet

We should all be mindful of what we are putting into our bodies. Depending on preexisting conditions, there are many diets one might consider. Neurologists often recommend the Mediterranean diet because a large number of studies have shown that this diet has helped deter dementia and has slowed down the process in those who have been diagnosed with dementia. I usually review a patient’s current diet to understand what foods are essential to them and explore what foods might be common in their culture. We can then review what they might take out or add to their diet to boost their brain health.

I often find that patients’ diets are already relatively healthy and have many key elements supporting their brain health. Many patients would benefit from formal consultation with a dietician and nutritionist, who would spend much more time reviewing the nuances of diet with them.

Visit The Doctor Or Other Medical Provider

It is essential to remember that websites and other automated technologies are not the best sources of information for your health. Getting personalized advice specific to your situation is best, so you should establish a relationship with a medical provider. I have seen many patients present with stroke or other catastrophic neurological events, and the family will say that the person was “perfectly healthy.” Then, when I ask them to put me in touch with their doctor, they say the person last saw a medical provider 10, 20, or more years ago. Not seeing the doctor does not mean that you are healthy.

Despite taking all the above measures to optimize your brain health, it is still possible that you may have underlying health conditions working against your brain. Conditions like Diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol can all silently cause incremental damage to your brain and blood vessels. So, regularly seeing a medical provider to check if you have these conditions and to help control these conditions is essential. Additionally, following up with the dentist is important because poor oral health has also been linked to dementia and stroke.

Tobacco, alcohol, and illicit substances like cocaine can also cause long-term damage to your brain. Your medical provider can help you with smoking cessation, and if illicit substance use is a problem, there are programs you can attend to help you quit. Current guidelines recommend limiting alcohol consumption.

As we get ready to celebrate another new year, there is no better time to decide to optimize your brain health than now. Over 6.2 million Americans aged 65 and over are living with dementia; more than 795,000 people in the U.S. have a stroke each year, and even more are living with depression and anxiety. By taking action now, you can minimize your risk of developing these and other ailment in the years to come.

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