Humans have brain plasticity, or neuroplasticity, which is the ability of the brain to change for better or worse at any age.
This flexibility of the brain plays a significant role in the development or decline of our brains, and how our distinct personalities are shaped.
Neural connections can be forged or severed, and gray matter can thicken or shrink. These changes reflect transformations in our abilities.
For example, learning a new skill can wire new neural pathways in our brains, while aging may weaken certain neural pathways that once existed and result in our memories not performing as well as they once did.
The American Heart Association/American Stroke Association have recently developed seven steps that aim to help individuals keep their brains healthy, from childhood into old age. They advise people to:
- get regular exercise
- eat a healthful diet
- maintain a healthy weight
- control cholesterol
- regulate blood sugar levels
- manage blood pressure
- quit smoking
In addition to following these guidelines, Medical News Today provide five steps to reach optimal brain health and improve your mind for the year ahead.
1. Get physically active
From childhood through adulthood and into old age, physical activity has been shown time and time again to benefit brain health.
Physical activity affects children’s brain structure from an early age, which, in turn, affects their academic performance.
Researchers discovered that children who are physically fit tend to have more gray matter in the frontal, subcortical, and temporal brain regions, as well as in the calcarine cortex.
These areas are all essential for executive function and motor, learning, and visual processes.
Exercise has been demonstrated to improve memory and thinking ability among older adults with mild cognitive impairment. Aerobic exercise, in particular, was shown to increase brain volume in most gray matter regions, including those that support short-term memory and improve cognitive function.
Scientists have indicated that even short bouts of physical activity may have a positive effect on the brain.
Taking part in 20 minutes of high-intensity interval training for 6 weeks has been associated with improvements in high-interference memory, which allows us to differentiate between our car and one of the same make, model, and color, for example.
The research also found that levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor — a protein involved in the function, growth, and survival of brain cells — was greater in individuals who experienced greater fitness gains from interval training.
Other research revealed that a one-time 10-minute burst of exercise temporarily boosts areas of the brain responsible for focus, decision-making, and problem-solving. This suggests that right before a cognitively demanding task such as an exam, test, or interview, performance may be improved by a brisk walk or cycle.
And, if you happen to prefer a more gentle form of exercise, practicing 25 minutes of Hatha yoga or mindfulness meditation each day has been associated with improvements in the brain’s executive functions and cognitive abilities, as well as the ability to regulate knee-jerk emotional responses.
2. Eat a brain-boosting Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean is the home to sun, sea, and foods known to have brain-boosting properties.
The Mediterranean diet is rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and olive oil.
It also includes moderate amounts of dairy, fish, and wine, while red meat, poultry, and processed foods are limited.
Research discovered that people who follow a Mediterranean diet might have long-term brain protection. Study participants who consumed a Mediterranean diet retained more brain volume over 3 years than those not following the diet.
Eating a Mediterranean diet has also been shown to slow down the rate of cognitive decline and is linked with improved brain function in older adults.
A study that focused on the impact of eating nuts on the brain found that regular nut consumption strengthens brainwave frequencies that are related to cognition, learning, memory, healing, and other vital brain functions.
The research team tested almonds, cashews, pecans, pistachios, and walnuts. Although peanuts are actually legumes, they were still included in the study. Some types of nut were found to stimulate specific brain frequencies more than others.
Pistachios seemed to generate the highest gamma wave response, while peanuts produced the most significant delta response. Gamma wave response is tied to information retention, learning, cognitive processing, and perception, and delta wave response is linked to natural healing and healthy immunity.
3. Expand cognitive abilities with training
Brain training has had mixed results in studies. While some research has shown that brain training improves memory and cognitive ability, other studies report that there is little evidence to support claims that brain-training programs improve everyday cognitive performance.
Recent papers have determined that the type of brain exercise is an important factor in the outcome of brain-training sessions.
Research that was led by Radboud University Medical Center in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, found that not only is super-sized memory ability trainable, but it is also long-lasting.
Individuals with typical memory skills used a strategic memory improvement technique, known as memory of loci training, for 30 minutes each day for 40 days.
The participants went from recalling around 26 words from a list of 72 to remembering 62 words, so the training more than doubled their memory capacity. Improvements in recall were observed for at least 4 months after training.
The memory of loci is a mnemonic device that uses familiar objects in a room or landmarks on a journey to visualize, memorize, and recall an unlimited amount of information in a fixed order.
4. Learn a new language
In addition to brain training, another method you can use to give your brain a workout is to learn a new language or several foreign languages. Learning foreign languages ignites cognitive abilities in infants, benefits the aging brain, and sharpens the mind.
Researchers at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, Russia, as well as the University of Helsinki in Finland report that learning foreign languages enhances the elasticity of the brain and its capacity to code information.
They explain that the more languages a person learns, the faster their neural network reacts to process the accumulated data.
Other research, which was led by the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, revealed that speaking two or more languages might slow down the cognitive decline associated with aging, even if the other languages are learned during adulthood.
5. Study a musical instrument
Regardless of whether you study a musical instrument during childhood or adulthood, unleashing your inner Mozart will have a beneficial effect on your brain.
Exposure to music at a young age contributes to improved brain development, establishes neural networks, and stimulates existing tracts in the brain.
Receiving musical training as a child has been demonstrated to prevent the deterioration of speech listening skills in later years and may ward off age-related cognitive decline.
A study that was published in the Journal of Neuroscience uncovered the reason why playing a musical instrument might have a protective effect on the brain.
The scientists found that playing sounds on an instrument changes brain waves in such a way that rapidly improves listening and hearing skills. The altered brain activity illustrates that the brain can rewire itself and compensate for disease or injuries that may get in the way of a person’s ability to perform tasks.
Learning a physical task with music has also been shown to increase structural connectivity between the areas of the brain that are responsible for processing sounds and controlling movement.
Adding just a few of these activities to your weekly schedule will enhance your mind and give your brain a boost. If you only have time to fit one brain-enriching task into your week, we recommend getting out for a brisk walk. Physical activity has no end of benefits for your body and mind.
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