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Do You Know the Four Pillars of Brain Health?

Published on

30 July 2019

Mind, body and soul: we need more than good thoughts alone to keep our brains healthy. Brain health is supported by an active body, good nutrition, intellectual stimulation and social engagement. A recent clinical trial showed that a multidimensional brain health intervention combining diet, exercise and brain training could support cognition in elderly people at risk of cognitive decline1. No matter what our age, we can support our brain by focusing on these four areas of a brain-healthy lifestyle2.

The nourished mind

The brain is the most metabolically active organ in the body. Although the brain only makes up about 2 percent of the body’s weight, it uses 20 percent of the energy when the body is at rest3. As energy comes from the foods we eat, good nutrition can support brain health.

Breakfast is known as the most important meal of the day, and this is particularly true for the brain. The brain’s preferred energy source is glucose4. While we sleep, our blood glucose levels gradually decline after our evening meal. This restricts the energy available to the brain when we wake up. The carbohydrates in breakfast supply glucose that we need for our brains after waking up. Eating breakfast has been shown to support memory and cognition in adults and children5-7. In particular, breakfasts that supply a steady supply of glucose appear to be best for cognition.

Long term, the type of diet that we eat also affects our overall brain health8, 9. Dietary patterns that are good for the heart are also good for the brain because the same processes that age our heart also affect our brain. Healthy brain diets include:

  • The Mediterranean Diet
  • The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) Diet
  • The Healthy Eating Index
  • National food consumption guidelines in many countries

What these diets have in common are an emphasis on fruits, vegetables, high fiber grains, and oily fish, while salt, saturated fat and refined sugar are restricted. These diets are nutrient-rich and provide sustained energy to the brain, supporting normal brain function.

The mentally-engaged mind

Just like our muscles, our brains can be trained to increase their performance. The more active our brains are during our lifetime, the easier it is for us to maintain our mental performance when we are older. Experts call this our “cognitive reserve”10, 11.

Cognitive reserve is based on the mental abilities that we are born with, and the brain workout we get from our education, occupation and leisure-time activities11. The more mentally engaged we are, the higher our cognitive reserve. Taking a course, learning a language, and trying out new activities are all ways that we can increase our cognitive reserve. Brain training exercise and puzzles can help keep the mind sharp12. Also, hobbies and pastimes that we already are familiar with like reading, knitting, volunteering or playing music are all ways of keeping our brains active.

The socially-connected mind

Having a cup of coffee with a friend might be an enjoyable way to spend a morning, but it can also help your brain! Humans enjoy contact with others. Our family, friends and the community provide us with essential social support. Social activities are also cognitively demanding. Our social networks both support us and challenge our brains.

Evidence from population studies supports the role that social engagement plays in maintaining cognition in older adults13, 14. For example, in a large analysis of 30,000 Europeans, researchers found that participants’ satisfaction with their social networks and engaging in non-professional social activities helped older adults maintain their cognitive abilities14.

The physically-active mind

Staying physically active is more than just good for our bodies. Our minds benefit from a good workout as well15, 16. It’s likely that exercise affects the brain in several ways. There are direct effects such as increased blood flow to the brain from aerobic exercise that gives the brain a boost. Exercise also releases growth factors that are regarded as protective for the brain15. The indirect effects relate to improvements in risk factors of cardiovascular disease including weight loss and improved blood glucose management from regular exercise15, 17. Studies in adolescents18, adults19, and even elderly patients with dementia20 show that exercise can improve cognitive performance.

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  1. Ngandu T, Lehtisalo J, Solomon A, Levälahti E, Ahtiluoto S, Antikainen R, Bäckman L, Hänninen T, Jula A, Laatikainen T, et al. A 2 year multidomain intervention of diet, exercise, cognitive training, and vascular risk monitoring versus control to prevent cognitive decline in at-risk elderly people (FINGER): a randomised controlled trial. The Lancet 2015;385(9984):2255-63. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(15)60461-5
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