7 Habits That May Actually Change the Brain, According to Science
What does science actually tell us can help our brains? Here's what we know as of now.
The brain is by far our most precious organ–others are good, too, but they all pale in comparison to the mighty brain. Because the brain works so hard around the clock (even while we’re sleeping), it uses an extraordinary amount of energy, and requires a certain amount of nutritional support to keep it going. It’s high-maintenance, in other words. But there may be misconceptions about what keeps a brain healthy–for instance, there’s little evidence that omega-3 supplements or green smoothies would do anything above and beyond generally good nutrition. So what does science actually tell us can help our brains? Here’s what we know as of now.
Physical activity is pretty clearly linked to brain health and cognitive function. People who exercise appear to have greater brain volume, better thinking and memory skills, and even reduced risk of dementia. A recent study in the journal Neurology found that older people who vigorously exercise have cognitive test scores that place them at the equivalent of 10 years younger. It’s not totally clear why this is, but it’s likely due to the increased blood flow to the brain that comes from physical activity. Exercise is also thought to help generate new neurons in the hippocampus, the brain area where learning and memory “live,” and which is known to lose volume with age, depression and Alzheimer’s disease. The one stark exception to the exercise rule is impact sports like football, which has been shown again and again to be linked to brain damage and dementia, since even low-level impacts can accrue over time. The same is true for soccer headers.
Starting an exercise routine earlier in life is likely the best way to go, and the effects more pronounced the younger one begins. More research will be needed, but in the meantime, enough research has shown exercise to be beneficial to the brain that it’s pretty hard not to at least acknowledge it (even if we don’t do it as much as we should).
This connection is fascinating, because although there are thousands of years of anecdotal evidence that meditation can help a person psychologically, and perhaps neurologically, the scientific evidence for meditation’s effects on the brain has really just exploded in the last five or 10 years. Meditation has been linked to increased brain volume in certain areas of the cerebral cortex, along with less volume in the brain’s amygdala, which controls fear and anxiety. It’s also been linked to reduced activity in the brain’s default mode network (DMN), which is active when our minds are wandering about from thought to thought, which are typically negative and distressing. Meditation also seems to lead to changes to the white matter tracks connecting different regions of the brain, and to improved attention and concentration.
The brain does an awful lot of work while we’re sleeping–in fact, it really never sleeps. It’s always consolidating memories and pruning unnecessary connections. Sleep deprivation, and just a little of it, takes a toll on our cognitive health. It’s linked to worse cognitive function, and poorer attention, learning and creative thinking. The more sleep debt you accrue, the longer it takes to undo it. Sleeping for about seven hours per night seems to be a good target to aim for.
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