Brain health 101

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Have you ever driven home and realized you couldn’t recall the journey? You aren’t alone. Research describes this state as the default-mode network (DMN), a daydreaming condition causing us to be distracted and forgetful. We can spend 50 percent of our time here without much awareness of our day.

Current brain research, however, remains optimistic about the adult brain. Attention and memory are the cognitive functions most affected by age. But evidence suggests that these areas can and do remain intact as we move forward in decades. A healthy brain can be happier, calmer and smarter, utilizing the library of stored experiences that allow us to act with wisdom and grace.

The trick is finding ways to keep the brain healthy throughout our lifetime. The brain has approximately 100 billion neurons that carry messages throughout the body, affecting our senses, nerves and muscles. With exercise, the brain grows gray and white matter, as well as myelin (a fatty insulation coating the brain’s internal wiring). The brain has 100,000 miles of blood vessels. At 60 percent fat, the brain is our fattiest organ. Physical activity reinforces neuron production while omega-3 rich foods, such as fish, help maintain these healthy fats.

Socialization and spirituality also help maintain balance in our lives. Sometimes balance means saying yes to time with family and friends, while other times it means saying no. Building on our life experiences and sharing physical activity with friends challenge our brain to power up.

The connections that challenge us with thoughts and ideas that are different from our own are most beneficial. This election year is the perfect time for that kind of stimulation. Constructive arguments can rejuvenate the brain (emphasis on constructive)!

Finally, regular intellectual feedings are required for brain health. This can include activities like learning a new dance or language with a friend. Proficiency is nice, but is not required. It’s the playful journey that helps us go and grow.

Maureen Martin is a registered nurse and medical writer living in Southern California.

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