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Having a healthy brain is something worth thinking about                                                                        July 2009


health brainNone of us know what the future may hold for us, but with the risk of alzheimer’s, dementia and other problems increasing as we get older, keeping our brain fit and healthy makes a lot of sense.

There are a number of reports out that suggest that the brain is no different from our bodies in that it can be kept strong and fit by exercise, and eating the right foods can definitely play a part in keeping our brain healthy.

Of course we are using our brain every day – even when we are relaxing we are still assessing and thinking. But scientists suggest that specific additional activities can help strengthen areas of the brain that may not be used in our normal daily life. For instance, logic games such as chess, sudoku and crosswords provide new challenges which can provide excellent brain exercise. Don’t stay in areas you know you are good at; if you are working a lot with words, then do a mathematically based sudoku or the newer more complex versions that are coming in. If you work with numbers in your normal daily life, then turn to word puzzles like crosswords.

Cross training for the brain is as important as for the body – it is no good being able to run well if your arms are so weak you can’t lift your sports bag! It is the same for the brain. Experts say learning new skills is very important and helps to ensure new connections continue to be formed in the brain. Take up new skills, learn a language or new technology – again something out of your normal range of activities (see past editions of laterlife for our Out of the Box suggestions).

Memory tasks are also really good – especially if you are getting to the age where you start forgetting bits and pieces. If you have grand children, introduce them to Kim’s Game, when you look at a tray with perhaps 15 objects on it for a limited time (perhaps 30 seconds) and then remove the tray and write down all the objects. Card games can be really useful in helping memory.

Probably everyone has heard the term “brain food”. This is not just an exaggerated marketing claim, scientists say some foods really can help to slow the brain’s ageing. The key is feeding the brain with the most effective nutrients for its tasks.

If only it were as easy as it sounds! In fact, the brain needs the widest range of foods to keep healthy. For instance, brains rely on “neurotransmitters”, messengers that carry the messages between neurons. But there are different neurotransmitters – acetylcholine (found in egg yolks, liver, and many other foods); dopamine (found in all proteins including beans, nuts and soy products); and serotonin (found in pasta, startchy vegetables, potatoes, cereals and breads).

Then you need tryptophan which converts into serotonin in the brain, and to absorb tryptophan, you need carbohydrates. B complex vitamins and minerals are needed for brain energy. Our brains are made of around 60% fat, so we need a supply of ‘good’ fats as part of our diet and there is growing evidence that Omega-3 fatty acids (found in oily fish) have a very positive effect on brain health.

And so it goes on! The key really is to have a healthy well balanced diet that includes all the different food types to ensure your brain receives all the nutrients it needs on a regular basis; and then take any specific supplements you might feel could assist you.

Physical exercise can help your brain keep healthy – it is said that exercising just two or three times a week can really help cut the risk of getting Alzheimer’s. Finally, recent studies suggest that being happy can make a difference to brain activity and health - the studies’ assessment of being happy included having a good network of family, friends and support.

Keeping our brains healthy is clearly not a simple matter – but it is certainly something worth thinking about!


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