Enjoy 2018: Improve Brain Health and Brain Function by Living Well
A new year always makes me reflective about the choices I have made, the changes needed and even what I need to accept and enjoy. As I start 2018, I am aware that I have mastered the art of being busy and distracted. I have forgotten how to enjoy myself.
When was the last time I went dancing with friends?
When did I enjoy watching sunset or a Joburg thunderstorm?
When did I listen, uninterrupted, to music that makes me happy?
Professionally, I am focused on brain health, in particular on simple, practical measures that can accomplish this. My professional interest made me aware that activities such as visiting galleries, listening to music, dancing with friends, learning a new skill, meditating, and many other activities, allow you think better, remember better and feel better. Essentially, having fun and living well, keep your brain healthy. The evidence for this is both fascinating and compelling. I will discuss some in brief here, and will post more on these later in the year.
‘Live a life of sheer joy and ecstasy … that is the only way to live.’ Osho
Studies using functional MRI’s have shown that viewing or creating art activates a network in the brain called the default mode network. This network is important in self-reflection, the memory of personal events and understanding other people’s emotions. Jonathan Fineberg’s book, Modern Art at the Border of Mind and Brain, beautifully illustrates the value of art.
The limbic system is an important part of the brain for processing emotions. Listening to music has been shown to activate this part of the brain. Music has been used therapeutically to supplement standard treatments for various illnesses, including anxiety, depression, pain, cancer and heart disease.
Dancing also stimulates the limbic system. This may help us to understand other people’s emotions and, potentially, increase empathy. It is currently used as an additional therapy for illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and some psychiatric illnesses.
Reading challenging and new information, stimulates the brain. This has the ability to increase the cognitive reserve of the brain, so protecting it.
Exercise activates genes within the brain which increase plasticity. This increased plasticity occurs in the hippocampus, a part of the brain important in memory formation.
Meditation, Mindfulness or Relaxation Techniques
Meditation has been shown to improve brain health in various ways. It has the potential to improve sleep quality. Sleep is important for overall health, and poor sleep can contribute to heart disease, diabetes and dementia. Meditation has been shown to stimulate the default mode network, with the benefits of this discussed above.
Eating unhealthy foods, such as those high in saturated fats and sugar, leads to various chronic illnesses including diabetes, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Diets high in saturated fats and sugar affects learning and memory in adults and children. A high fat, high sugar diet causes shrinkage of the hippocampus, which is important for memory.
Social interaction encourages the development of new cells in the memory part of the brain, the hippocampus.
These activities don’t just keep the brain healthy. Many of these same activities, can keep the heart healthy, and reduce depression and anxiety. So, living well leads to better health, and better health helps to have a life well-lived. It is a cycle of health.
Let’s enjoy 2018. This is the best way to stay healthy, happy and calm.