Professional Opinion

Professional Opinion: Can you keep your brain in shape?

Dr. Rudy Kachmann
Dr. Rudy Kachmann Submitted photo

This week, Dr. Rudy Kachmann, a retired neurosurgeon, author and wellness expert, discusses how to improve your brain health.

Question: We hear about the importance of good nutrition and fitness in terms of our overall health, but are there certain foods we should eat, or exercises we can do to keep our minds sharp? Is there such as thing as brain health? What, if anything, can a person do to keep it "in shape" as well?

Answer: As we live our lives, our brains grow billions of new cells, constructing connections (synapses) between brain cells that form circuits responsible for specific tasks, yet working together to produce the private movie playing in our heads.

Physical and mental exercise routines, a nutrient-dense diet and eliminating toxins can improve brain health.

Whenever we participate in an activity that requires persistent visual, mental or physical repetition, neural pathways grow and reorganize, forming templates for that activity.

Without purpose, weaker synaptic connections wither away--so, "use it or lose it."

Playing cards, juggling, practicing a musical instrument or learning a new language can keep the brain firing on all cylinders.

Being part of a volunteer, work or social network reduces the risk of dementia. Practicing meditation causes increases in the thickness of areas of the brain's frontal lobes associated with focus, perception, and planning.

Most of us aren't striving to gain the mental focus of a Buddhist monk or Roger Federer. But if you want to improve brain fitness, practice an activity that requires sustained mental focus and repetition where the exercised "muscle" is gray matter.

By far the best strategy to improve brain health is a physical fitness routine.

Exercise releases chemicals that cause new brain cell growth.

Increase "activities of living" like taking the stairs or walking more and sitting less; play golf, pickleball or tennis; or learn new activities like ballroom dancing or yoga which is great for the mind, body and spirit.

Eat a Nutrient-Dense Diet

Eat a nutrient-dense diet high in fruits and vegetables and moderate in olive oil and lean protein (poultry, fish, beans, and nuts). Eat a rainbow of whole foods. They're full of vitamins, minerals and 250,000 phytochemicals and their interaction (nutritional mosaic) leads to good brain health.

Eliminate Toxins and Mitigate Risk

Sugar is toxic. It reacts with proteins in the blood and deposits them in the brain, resulting in memory loss over time. The latter is common especially in pre-and Type 2 diabetics.

Excessive alcohol kills brain cells and shrinks the brain. Brain scans prove it. As a neurosurgeon, I saw many MRI scans of shrunken brains due to alcohol abuse. Narcotics (and yes, even marijuana) can have similar effects, especially on the developing teen brain.

Long-term chronic stress can damage the brain because cortisol, the stress hormone, causes brain cell death. Stress is the inability to cope with a perceived (real or imagined) threat to one's mental, physical, emotional or spiritual well-being, which results in a series of physiological responses. Music, prayer, meditation and breathing exercises are good stress-relievers.

"Think first" before getting on ladders or taking on unusual heights, playing contact sports or diving into unfamiliar water. Wear a seatbelt.

If you ride a bicycle, four-wheeler or motorcycle wear a helmet. Accumulating minor brain injuries can lead to a cognitive decline, and serious neurologic damage.

The brain is a very dynamic organ that continues to grow into adulthood and beyond.

Few things are more precious to quality of life than a well-functioning brain. Until recently, we didn't know to what extent the brain could grow or repair itself.

Research on stroke victims shows that brain cells and synapses can regenerate, and even adapt the functions of nearby damaged cells. And evidence that the brain is able to change according to use -- "neuroplasticity" -- means brain health matters at every age.

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