By: Dr. Olav Jaren, MD, PhD
IHA Neurology Consultants
The week of March 12th is Brain Awareness Week. As an adult neurologist, people typically ask me, how can I keep my memory healthy? This is a great question. I don’t think we have all the answers yet, but there are a few things you should know about the brain.
The most important thing about keeping the brain healthy is to keep yourself healthy. The brain needs a continuous supply of healthy, nutrient and oxygen rich blood flow. Problems with high blood pressure, cigarette smoke, and elevated blood sugar levels are bad for brain health. Often when I meet people in the hospital, their symptoms are related to one of these issues. Malnutrition is bad for overall brain health. Having certain illnesses, like the flu, affects the brain in unpredictable ways. Avoiding head injuries also helps keep the brain healthy.
Nutrition is important to the brain. Sometimes migraine headaches result when there is too much or too little of certain chemical nutrients. MSG (mono sodium glutamate) is a common trigger for migraine headaches. When food we eat contains too much of this, some of us do not feel well afterwards. Supplementing with calcium, magnesium, or B-vitamin complex has been known to help prevent headaches.
But often what people really want to know is “What can I do to make my brain work better?”
It is true that not using your brain will result in loss of brain function. Ever wonder why you have forgotten that language you learned in high school? The brain will replace those memories with new ones if they are not used. The brain is a complex, dynamic organ. It is constantly remodeling itself to adapt to your environment. What the brain enjoys most is learning new tasks, thoughts and skills.
The brain also enjoys being around people, stimulating the senses, and doing mental gymnastics. I think it is a good idea to occasionally challenge the brain to try something new, such as playing a new musical instrument, studying a new language, or learning the geography of a new place – either by studying maps or traveling. For others, perhaps procedural tasks are better, such as learning to tie different knots or making sculptures. Changes are good for a healthy brain, because it wants to adapt. An activity that you are already familiar with, such as doing a crossword puzzle, helps your brain focus but does not necessarily challenge the brain to learn something new. Keep in mind that our brain needs a break from time to time – rest can be helpful for the brain too.
Perhaps the worst thing to do to your brain is to remain entirely inactive. Sometimes people say, “I watched that movie, but I can’t remember what happened.” That means their brain was not tuned into that program, and likely not a lot of adaptation by the brain was needed.
Unfortunately, there are times when a person’s brain is not healthy. Normally this interferes with learning, focusing, or even day to day functioning. If this may be the case, consider speaking to your healthcare provider, who may refer you to a neurologist to better address these issues.