Why Brain Health is so Important

Updated: Jan 22


Robert Munsch, one of Canada’s most beloved storytellers (behind The Paper Bag Princess, Love You Forever, Mortimer and Thomas’ Snowsuit) did an in-depth interview last week revealing that he is struggling with dementia. We were so heartbroken to hear this news. It got me thinking about brain health, and what people can do to try and lower key risk factors for things like dementia and Alzheimer’s.


Why brain health is so important

Dementia develops when there are so many risk factors for the disease that they overwhelm the brain's ability to maintain and repair itself.


While there are some risk factors you cannot control, such as age and genetics, reducing the effects of risk factors that can be controlled makes good sense if you want to reduce your risk of dementia.


After all, the brain is one of your most vital organs. It plays a role in your every action and thought. Though you can not see it, your brain needs to be looked after and exercised regularly just like the rest of your body.


By following these tips and strategies, you are not only reducing your risk of dementia, you are also:

  • Looking after your long-term brain health,

  • Reducing your risk of other cognitive and chronic diseases, and

  • Protecting your overall health!


BE PHYSICALLY ACTIVE

People who exercise regularly are less likely to develop heart disease, stroke, and diabetes – all risks associated with dementia.


Physical activity also pumps blood to the brain, which nourishes the cells with nutrients and oxygen, and may even encourage the development of new cells. As well, regular exercise helps to reduce stress and improve your mood.


Five tips for being physically active:

  1. Start where you can and set reasonable goals. If you feel you have little opportunity to exercise, start by adding a bit of physical activity into your daily routine. Choose a brisk walk to the store rather than driving the car or take the stairs instead of the escalator or elevator for one or two floors.

  2. Think of it as "activity", not "exercise". Choose activities and sports that you enjoy, and physical activity won't seem like a chore or task to tick off.

  3. Once you get going, aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per week. Moderate activities could be walking a dog or going for a bicycle ride, while vigorous activities include swimming or going for a run. If you have reduced mobility, try activities that can help you maintain your balance and prevent falls, such as gentle yoga or tai chi.

  4. Consider aerobic activities. Aerobic activities, such as walking, swimming, hiking, and dancing, can help maintain general fitness. Many experts recommend walking as one of the safest and most effective forms of aerobic exercise.

  5. Plan out your physical activity with someone you know. That way, you are more likely to keep active while you also gain the brain-healthy benefits of social interaction.


BE SOCIALLY ACTIVE

Staying connected socially helps you stay connected mentally. Research shows that regularly interacting with others may help lessen your risk of developing dementia. Having an active social life also can reduce your stress, brighten your mood, and keep your relationships strong.


Five tips for being socially active:

  1. Make the most of your daily opportunities to socialize. Chat with your taxi driver or store clerk; make conversation in the elevator.

  2. Practice a random act of kindness. It could be as small as smiling at someone else passing by – paying your happiness forward will not only brighten someone else's day, but yours as well!

  3. Find time to volunteer. Whether it is participating in service clubs or joining a hobby group, you will find that there are many healthy benefits to volunteering. It can build self-esteem and confidence and expand your network of social support.

  4. Combine social interaction with an activity. It could be a physical activity like walking together or a fitness class, or it could be something like a book club or a play. Ask someone to try a brain-challenging game together. Enjoy yourself while you positively impact your brain health.

  5. Maintain old friendships and make new ones. Stay social through work, volunteer activities, travel, hobbies, family, and friends. Be open to new experiences – accept invitations and extend a few of your own. Keep up your old and new friendships through talking on the phone, chatting online via email or even writing a letter.


CHALLENGE YOUR BRAIN

Just as physical activity improves your body's ability to function, studies show that exercising your brain can help reduce your risk of dementia. By approaching daily routines in new ways, you engage new or rarely-used mental pathways.


It can be as simple as dialing a phone number with your less dominant hand or as complex as learning a new language. Remember, the goal is to give your brain a new experience and a workout every day.


Five tips for challenging your brain:

  1. Pursue life-long learning. By constantly learning new things and challenging your brain throughout your life, you can help build your cognitive reserve. Learning a new language and taking up new hobbies are good examples of brain-challenging activities.

  2. Play games that involve your mind. Examples of brain-challenging games can include chess, tabletop games, video games, word and number puzzles, jigsaws, crosswords, sudoku and memory games. For games on your computer, your tablet, or your phone, find games where you can play and interact with other people.

  3. Break your routine. A small challenge to try out is changing up how you normally live your day. Take a different route to the store or change the order of your morning routine. Trying something different than you are used to may be more difficult than you think!

  4. Engage in cultural activities. Check out what's happening in your area, like the latest exhibit or an upcoming concert. After the event, discuss what you saw with a friend.

  5. Cross-train your brain. What is something you are not good at doing? Work to improve it and give your brain some flexibility. Try a variety of challenges instead of sticking to one particular area.


FOLLOW A HEALTHY DIET

We know that healthy eating can reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Since these conditions are risk factors for dementia, we can also say that another benefit of a good diet is good brain health. Healthy dietary choices not only improve your general health, in the long-term nutritious food helps maintain brain function and fight cognitive decline.


Five tips for eating healthily:


1. Try out the Mediterranean and the MIND diets. These diets recommend limiting processed foods, meat, sweets, and dairy, Instead, they emphasize eating more fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, olive oil and fish.


2. Enjoy a variety of foods in many different colours:

  • Blue and purple fruits and vegetables tend to be packed with anti-oxidants. blackberries, blueberries, purple cabbage, and plums are all great food choices.

  • Go green every day with fruits and vegetables that are good for your brain and also benefit bones, teeth, and vision. Green options include avocados, broccoli, celery, cucumbers, peas, spinach, pears, honeydew melon and many more.

  • Choose white, tan, and brown fruits and vegetables such as bananas, cauliflower, potatoes, turnips, onions, and garlic.

  • Add orange and yellow fruits and vegetables such as grapefruit, cantaloupe, butternut squash, peaches, papaya, oranges, sweet potatoes, yellow peppers, and lemons to your plate.

  • Reach for reds every day. Beets, raspberries, red grapes, radishes, tomatoes, red peppers, watermelon, rhubarb, pomegranates, and cherries are just a few excellent red choices.

3. Find healthy ways to add flavour to your meals. A healthy diet can be tasty! Herbs, spices, nuts, and olives are all healthy add-on options.


4. Be mindful of your eating habits. Choose appropriate portion sizes, eat healthy snacks, and drink plenty of water.


5. Plan meals in advance. By developing healthy eating patterns, you do not leave your diet to chance. There are meal planning apps and websites that can help you plan ahead, cook your own food, and decide what recipes work best even if you have a busy schedule.



MAKE CONSCIOUS AND SAFE CHOICES

Our ability to maintain life-long brain health is very much influenced by the choices we make in our daily lives. Research has found that, next to aging, lifestyle and environmental factors are the most influential factors in determining one's risk for Alzheimer's disease.


Therefore, it is important to protect your body, at any age, for lifelong brain health. Make safe choices that protect you from ailments and trauma that would otherwise increase your risk of dementia.


Five tips for making conscious and safe choices:

  1. Avoid habits that harm your body. Examples of harmful habits include smoking, listening to music too loudly and excessive drinking. They might be fun in the short-term, but not in the long run!

  2. Protect your head. Wear a helmet if you are engaging in intense physical activity like skating, skiing, skateboarding, rollerblading, and cycling.

  3. Assess the safety of the environment around you. Do you work or live in an area where you are continually exposed to risks such as loud sounds or vehicle pollution? Does your home have handrails or grab bars installed that improve accessibility and prevent falls? By being aware of potential dangers in your environment, you can take steps to counter them.

  4. Track your numbers (but not obsessively!). Doing so will make it easier for you to keep your blood pressure, cholesterol, weight, and blood sugar levels within recommended ranges. After all, all of these conditions increase your risk for Alzheimer's disease.

  5. See your doctor regularly. This will help you address specific health concerns you may have, including diet, hearing evaluations and physical activity.



MANAGE STRESS

Experiencing stress is a part of everyday life, but when it persists over time, it can cause vascular changes and chemical imbalances that are damaging to the brain and other cells in your body.


By managing or lowering your stress, you can improve your brain health and reduce your risk of dementia.


Five tips for managing stress:


1. Recognize the symptoms of chronic stress:

  • Emotional: Depression, tension, anxiety, anger, worry and/or fear.

  • Physical: Headaches, fatigue, insomnia and/or sweating.

  • Mental: Poor concentration, memory loss, indecisiveness and/or confusion.

  • Behavioural: Fidgeting, overeating, alcohol and/or drug abuse.

2. Take personal time for yourself. Exercise, relaxation, entertainment, hobbies, and socializing are essential parts of our health and well-being. Everyone needs to find a balance that limits stress and helps maintain optimal health. Methods could be through meditation, deep breathing, massage, or physical exercise – the key is to explore a variety of techniques and find those that work for you.


3. Set realistic expectations. We often assume our expectations are reasonable, but this is not always the case. By identifying what you can change and what cannot be changed, you can single out unrealistic expectations. Then, you can focus on what can benefit yourself right away.


4. Get plenty of sleep. You need at least seven hours of sleep per night. Sleep deprivation can significantly impair your memory, mood, and function.


5. Seek and accept support. Reach out to a friend or family member that you trust. Talk about what's giving you stress. If symptoms of stress persist, contact your doctor.





Special thanks to the Alzheimer Society for their assistance in providing some Tips & Tricks!