“The bottom line is that we need to think of the brain as playing by the same rules as other major organs like the heart and the lungs,” says Simon J. Evans, PhD, research assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Department of Psychiatry and co-author of Brain Fit for Life: A User’s Guide to Life Long Brain Health and Fitness. “The brain is a physical organ that is directly linked to the health of your body. But people tend not to see the relationship between the two.” Dr. Evans says that if you’ve ever seen the neurovascular system of the brain, it’s incredible to see how many blood vessels are running through it. “Twenty percent of the oxygen that you breathe goes to the brain, which is why cardiovascular health is so closely tied to cognitive fitness later in life.”
Work Out Your Brain
While brain games and other mental activities provide stimulation for the brain, Dr. Evans says the stimulation you get from regular physical exercise is an even bigger factor in overall brain health and memory ability. And now we have even more motivation to get moving: Scientists once thought that we were born with all the brain cells we’ll ever have. Not so, says new research that shows our brain’s memory center (the hippocampus) has the ability to form new neurons until the day we die. This process, known as neurogenesis, is greatly helped by regular physical exercise. Slow down the exercise and you slow down the new cell formation.
The American Heart Association and the American College of Sports Medicine offer a set of guidelines that you can follow based on age. The overall recommendation is that everyone should do some form of moderate physical activity for 30 minutes at least three days per week. By moderate, it means you should get your heart rate up, sweat, but still be able to carry on a conversation if you had to. “Keep in mind that this recommendation is the minimum,” says Dr. Evans, who recommends shooting for doing some type of activity for 30 minutes every day for the maximum overall benefit. Be sure that you incorporate both cardiovascular exercise (walking, swimming, running) and some form of resistance training (lifting weights, push-ups).
And while you don’t have to become an elite athlete to realize the benefits of exercise, ultimately the more muscle mass you have, the easier it may be for your body to manufacture or metabolize glucose, Dr. Evans says. When our body loses part or all of this ability we become prediabetic or diabetic (a condition known as type 2 diabetes, it has reached epidemic levels in the U.S. due to inactivity, poor diet and obesity). Diabetes also interferes with circulation, which in turn impacts our brain health.
There are also a myriad of other health conditions that can impair our memory, including hypertension, high cholesterol, depression, menopause and thyroid disorder, as well as vitamin deficiencies, certain medications and alcohol abuse. That’s why it’s imperative to report any difficulty with memory (recalling names, being unable to hold a conversation, struggling to find the word for everyday objects, like car or book, for instance) to your doctor, who can then help you pinpoint the cause, and hopefully treat the underlying condition as well as the memory problem.