How To Maintain & Even Improve Brain Fitness & Health in Midlife

If you forget where you put your glasses more regularly, you’re not alone. Fifty percent of people aged over 50 experience problems recalling once familiar details like passwords or birthdays. If you’re not keeping your brain fit, your short term memory will fall victim to the deterioration of age. Just where did you park the car this morning?

If you’re feeling slower as you age, it is easy to take action. You don’t have to accept an impaired cognitive function. I want to show you ways to improve brain fitness every day. Physical activities, socializing (in whatever form that may take), and improving your body’s fuel are all great ways of keeping your brain fit.

What Changes When Brains Age

Every day you make thousands of decisions. As we age that control can be compromised. It might become more difficult to multitask or pay attention. You may even find yourself having difficulty making decisions. It is imperative to maintain or improve brain fitness so that age doesn’t defeat our cognitive abilities.

Physical Brain Changes and Aging

There are some people who seemingly hit the genetic lottery and get to age much more slowly. Their mental faculties are not as compromised in their golden years.

middle aged couple exercising in the parkOthers are not so lucky, early-onset Alzheimer’s or other similar diseases can be soul-destroying especially for the family.

There are also personal and environmental factors, like drinking and smoking that can affect the brain. Even in moderation, alcohol and aging don’t mix very well.

As we age we also undergo the loss of muscle tone and strength. In the brain, cells degrade, neurons lose connections, and the brain itself even shrinks. 

Normal Aging vs Dementia

There are two levels of abnormal aging. On the lower end is mild cognitive impairment or MCI. Most people with this form of brain degradation can still complete most tasks. They just experience above-average levels of memory loss during day-to-day activities.

Unfortunately, if behaviors become erratic, or severe personality changes follow, it may have progressed into dementia. Now for some good news, if you can train your body you can train your brain. Let’s take a look at ways to improve brain fitness.

Exercise your Brain

Mental stimulation exercises can come in lots of forms. Even taking a walk outside can improve brain fitness. Creative problem solving has been proven to increase after time spent in nature.

Using Games to Grow

If you have a smartphone, you’ve probably seen advertisements for games like Elevate, Lumosity, or CognitFit. These brain fitness programs aim to help you improve brain acuity by training your reaction times and recall ability.

There are no definitive studies that can correlate overall brain growth with using brain training apps. However, within the apps themselves, you can see your progress in areas like math skills, increased vocabulary, and reading speed.

It’s not just modern technology that can help. I am much more old school I’m afraid and love crosswords and particularly Sudoku.

If you do too, doing crosswords can increase your linguistics. For Sudoku lovers, be on the lookout for better planning skills, decision making, and problem-solving. Even jigsaw puzzles could help you tune your fine motor skills and aid in improving memory.

Socialize: Sharing Ideas Stimulates the Brain

SuperAgers, those over 80 with mental facilities more in line with someone 30 years younger, socialize more than their peers and challenge themselves.

Staying active with a social group tends to make you want to continue to learn. Just having another person near you could increase your happy hormone, dopamine.

Prioritizing your social goals could lead to higher levels of personal satisfaction. One easy method for mental fitness could be as simple as getting together with friends for a fun event that involved mental sparing like a quiz night or even physical activity like a hiking day out. Although at the time of writing this has become more difficult.

Physical Activity for Your Frontal Cortex

Getting the blood flowing in your body also gets the blood flowing in your brain. While overall health benefits can be seen in better physical fitness, there are other amazing benefits to getting into shape.

Physical activity can improve short and long term memory. I know I always feel sharper after teaching a cardio dance fitness class. If you’re playing competitive sports, cycling outside, or even just walking through the park, you are stimulating your brain.

And exercising or just walking amongst nature is a primeval pleasure that has to be good for you.

Supplements & Diet

Just like a marathon runner needs the best fuel to keep her body healthy so too your brain requires quality nutriments to generate all the computing power necessary to get through each day.

Did you know, although the brain is about 2% of someone’s weight, it uses 20% of the body’s energy? So, in a normal day, I may use 400 calories just to contemplate my navel.

Through exercise and diet, you can improve brain fitness but also lower blood pressure and lose weight.

Fight Dementia with Dinner

Eating healthy foods is a settled necessity for improved mental health, but what specific items have been proven to help you improve brain fitness?

Mackerel dinnerOmega-3s are necessary to encourage proper brain growth from childhood onwards. As we age into our 50s, these important fatty acids are not as plentiful as they were in our youth. The reduction can lead to depression, anxiety, and of course, memory loss. By eating fatty fish, foods rich in Omega-3, like wild salmon and mackerel, it is possible to improve brain fitness.

Studies are split on red meat. Some advocate that red meat provides essential proteins necessary to curb certain aging ailments. Others suggest that red meat is one of the root causes of many issues like high blood pressure, risk of heart disease, and dementia.

While red meat provides essential proteins to help combat muscle loss it can also deliver too much iron to the body. An overload can be a contributing factor to Alzheimer’s and dementia.

The easiest thing you can do is to go greener in your diet. Try not to eat things with added sugar, salt, and oil. This means sticking to lots of fruits and vegetables. You can get your snack fix with healthy alternatives like nuts and freshly made popcorn.

Having a diet with too much refined sugar has shown to be a contributing factor in many health problems including lowering brain volume and function. This is particularly so in short term memory loss.

Reducing sugar intake not only improves memory but also your overall health.

Pieces of chocolate in cocoa powderOn the other hand, for some good news, dark chocolate is good for the brain. The unsweetened variety with in excess of 70% pure cocoa contains antioxidants and flavonoids which is good for memory performance.

Can Some Supplements Help?

There are medications that your doctor can prescribe for loss of brain function. But what if you wanted to stick to more natural remedies? There are a number of supplements that have been shown to help improve brain fitness.

Acetyl-L-carnitine ( also called ALCAR) is a powerful brain enhancer. In studies, ALCAR has been shown to improve brain fitness by improving existing synapses and even helping to grow new ones – that’s on aging rats at least.

Further positive results could be specifically useful for those with pre-dementia or the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

In research, Ginkgo Biloba shows a lot of promise in the memory area. In one study, participants were able to recall more than their peers after 6 weeks on the supplement.

Creatine is a supplement that became popular in the 70s and still is today for use in the gym by those wanting to fast track their muscle growth.

However more recently creatine has been examined to see if it’s obvious attributes as a natural bodily hormone could be useful in a number of areas, one being improving brain function

By increasing levels of brain creatine studies have shown an increase in response to mental training, to reduce mental
fatigue and make more efficient the brain’s oxygen delivery whilst performing difficult mental tasks.

In both working memory and intelligence, speed of processing was important. Findings show a boost in brain energy capacity which is known to influence brain performance.

Sleep Perchance to Store the Day’s Events

For something we do almost for one-third of our lives, it is often still a mystery as to what is going on when we sleep and what the purpose of it is.

We do know that sleep is restorative and vital at the earliest age for healthy growth and for the body’s cell renewal.
portrait cute newborn baby sleeping on brown blanketWe now also know the importance of sleep in ‘housekeeping’ our long and short term memory. Every night when we, as diurnal animals sleep, all of the day’s information by way of sensory inputs is processed.

Some stuff is discarded while other data is refined, stored and integrated with our long term experiences.

This means that a lack of sleep, poor quality sleep or drug-induced sleep can become more and more detrimental to our brain’s integrity. By drug-induced I mean, alcohol, prescription or over the counter drugs. Sleeping pills can be a short term solution and should be taken sparingly.

And for many sleep-related issues, therapy like CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) is often recommended as a more effective solution than pills and without any bad side effects or ongoing future health problems.

For those with insomnia, there is more information on sleep, sleeping pills and natural sleep aids.

Mindfulness, Meditation and Memory

I have for years thought “I must try meditation” or “mindfulness, I’ll give that a go” not really understanding what was meant by either term, in a practical sense.

Was it some desire to become enlightened – that would be great but let’s face it I don’t want it to interfere with my Friday nights. (:

meditation monkMindfulness goes back 2500 years or more and meditation goes back even further. I understand you don’t have to be a Buddhist monk to meditate or practice any form of religion. It has become something that is taught secularly.

Mindful meditation is something that has been studied and multiple research papers produced to give a very strong indication that a habit of mindfulness is an effective way of improving cognitive capabilities.

Other research has shown that active mindful meditators have an increased brain volume (prefrontal cortex among other areas) and when controlled tests were carried out it was found that those who began a program of mindful meditation showed larger brain areas than those that didn’t.

With all the evidence out there it might be worth getting over the “hippy-dippy” image and giving it a go.

Conclusion

If you’re not feeling any older in your body, it can be a shock if there are noticeable changes in your brain. Physical degradation is normal, but it doesn’t have to stop you from staying sharp.

By exercising your mind with social activities and brain stimulation you can help to improve brain fitness. Avoiding alcohol and quit smoking. Healthy diets, good quality sleep and brain improving supplements can also help in keeping your brain fit.