What a healthy brain means for you

It is a pleasure to be able to write on the topic of brain health. I look forward to educating you on the basics of the human brain and what we have learned about our brain’s ability to be shaped by environmental input, including lifestyle. Let’s get started with some brain basics:

Your brain is the single greatest, most miraculous, and complicated system we know of. This wonderful two-to-four pound structure sits directly between your ears and is responsible for your every thought, behavior, emotion, and movement. It represents your very identity and it deserves some attention and love.

Your brain not only weights three pounds on average, it is composed of 60% fat, and it demands nearly 25% of the blood from every heartbeat. These three facts provide the foundation or the “why” when we discuss “what” activities actually help to nurture the health of the brain in later articles.

We learned in 1998 the human brain generates new brain cells (neurogenesis) in a region of the brain critical for new learning and memory (hippocampus). We also have re-ignited the reality that the brain has plasticity that means your brain is highly dynamic, constantly reorganizing and malleable. Even more recently, we identified that a particular lifestyle approach can help to build brain resilience, a type of natural defense that helps to delay onset of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

In my own work on brain health that began over 10 years ago, I began to review existing research on what types of environmental input promoted the health of the brain. My work began in the studies on animals conducted in the 1950s. Dr. Marion Diamond described how an enriched environment helped to develop a healthier rodent brain compared to rodents raised in an un-enriched environment. This interested me and I wanted to know what was meant by enriched environment.

Dr. Diamond described the enriched environment as including three major factors: (1) socialization, literally having other rodents in the environment to interact; (2) physical activity, having a running wheel to run on; and (3) mental stimulation, having toys to play with. The un-enriched environment did not have any of these factors and the difference in the physical and functional aspects of the rodent brains was significant.

Now, animal studies are important, but we conduct animal research to try and understand if the same findings can be applied to humans. One of the fascinating parts of the 1998 finding that human brains generate new brain cells in the hippocampus is the fact that this is the same region rodents generate new brain cells. I began to write about the similarities between the animal brain research with the enriched environment and human brain research that suggested strong relationships between particular behaviors and reduction in the risk of dementia.

Scientific literature is filled with studies on the human brain health benefit of socialization, physical activity, and mental stimulation. These are the identical three factors described in the enriched environment for rodents back in the 1950s. The literature also includes the importance of nutrition and stress reduction for optimal human brain function.

My work evolved to the point of proposing and publishing my brain health lifestyle that is built from the animal brain research and integrates the research findings from research on lifestyle and the human brain. My brain health lifestyle includes five major domains or what I call ‘slices of the brain health pie:’ socialization, physical activity, mental stimulation, nutrition, and spirituality.

Let’s review this article’s major points:

1. The human brain weighs 3 pounds on average, is composed of 60% fat, and demands 25% of the blood from each heartbeat.
2. The human brain has plasticity, can be shaped by the environment and can be shaped for health.
3. A brain health lifestyle can help to build brain resilience.
4.  My brain health lifestyle has five major domains: socialization, physical activity, mental stimulation, nutrition, and spirituality.

This first article provides the basic foundation for brain health. The next several articles will provide greater detail on why plasticity is so powerful, how brain resilience works, the importance of novelty and complexity, and an in-depth discussion of the research-based behaviors that make up my brain health lifestyle. And soon we will explore how you can use brain games to boost your memory and cognitive abilities.