Wellbeing / 15 Mar, 2021

Improving your brain fitness

Dr Lau Pik Onn

As we age, changes to our body and brain are normal. Even as we strive to keep our body fit, we also have to keep our brain healthy and sharp. Our cognitive abilities such as memory and hand-eye coordination tend to decline as we grow older.

Many people do not think about their brain health until they notice some loss in memory or their cognitive abilities when they hit their 60s or 70s. Are there ways we can protect or train our brains? For six tips on improving your brain fitness, I encourage you to read the recommendations below.

1. Exercise regularly

Exercise has many benefits which includes lowering your blood pressure and cholesterol, balancing your sugar control, improving mood and reducing mental stress and anxiety.

Regular exercise also increases the number of tiny blood vessels that bring oxygen-rich blood to the region of the brain that is responsible for thought and memory. Multiple studies have shown that people who are physically active are less likely to experience a decline in their mental function.

Moderate aerobic exercises at least two to three times a week, between 30 and 60 minutes each time is encouraged.

For example, in a study done at the University of British Columbia, researchers found that regular aerobic exercise (the kind that gets your heart pumping) appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, which is the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning.

2. Improve your diet

Good nutrition is not only important for your body, but also for your mind. Having a diet with more fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, whole grains, healthy fats such as olive oil, less red meat and less salt can help improve your brain health.

Omega fatty acids found in extra virgin oil and other healthy fats are vital for our cells to function correctly, and appear to decrease the risk of coronary artery disease, slow cognitive decline while increasing mental focus in older adults.

3. Avoid tobacco and reduce alcohol consumption

Tobacco and alcohol consumption are risk factors for hypertension and stroke.

4. Have enough sleep

We should have at least seven to eight hours of continuous sleep at night. Having enough sleep strengthens our immune system, improves memory and concentration, and energises us.

5. Stay mentally stimulated

Our brain is similar to a muscle, you need to use it or you will lose it.

Any mentally stimulating activity will help to build up our brain. We can keep our brain active with many activities like playing cards, board games, mahjong, sudoku, crossword puzzles, reading or learning a new language.

You should experiment with dexterity as well as mental effort such as learning a new musical instrument, drawing, painting or arts and craft.

We should try to incorporate different activities to increase the effectiveness. Watching TV does little to stimulate our brain as it is a passive activity.

6. Maintain social interaction

As we grow older or after we retire, we may become isolated. Hence it is important we remain socially active and involved.

Social interaction helps to ward off depression and stress, both of which can contribute to memory loss. Research links solitary confinement to brain atrophy, so remaining socially active may have the opposite effect and strengthen the health of the brain.

It is important that we make an effort to maintain friendships and have frequent interactions with family and friends. You may like to consider volunteering or joining a club and participating in community activities.

The above are some things we can do to help slow down the decline in memory as we age and lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

Keeping a healthy diet and exercising regularly reduce the risk of high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol. These are risk factors for vascular dementia, which accounts for 45.5% of dementia cases in Singapore.

This is why it is important that we screen early for these chronic diseases so that we can ensure an early diagnosis and management. We must take control of our health by looking after both our body and brain.

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