Boost your brain power

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May 14, 2024

Senior woman smiling while drawing with the group

Think about it.

Your brain is the essence of who you are—your personality, emotions, speech, memory and movement.

"The brain is an amazing, incredibly versatile and profoundly resilient organ," says Harmanpreet Tiwana, MD, a neurologist at Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center.

Nourishing your brain can be part of your everyday routine. No matter your age, you're always young enough to optimize your brain.

The power of neuroplasticity

Maintaining your brain's health includes tried-and-true methods like nutrition, exercise and sleep. But there's no easy trick to strengthening your focus, memory and cognition. It takes effort.

"If there were a magic wand for maximizing our memory or ability to learn or focus our attention, we would all be waving it," says Elaine Kiriakopoulos, MD, MPH, MSc, co-founder and director of the HOBSCOTCH Institute for Cognitive Health & Well-Being at Dartmouth Health.

"What our brain does have is neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity gives us the opportunity to enhance our brain's potential," Kiriakopoulos says.

Neuroplasticity gives your brain the power to change—whether you're learning to ride a bike as a child, recovering from a brain injury or mastering a new language at age 60.

"The brain can change throughout a person's lifetime," Kiriakopoulos says. "It's based on our experiences, environment and individual choices."

Optimize your brain

Your brain is the most complex organ in your body. Neuroplasticity helps keep your brain active and malleable. So does a healthy gut, vitamins, exercise, sleep, healthy foods and keeping your mind engaged.

The perks of probiotics and prebiotics

Probiotics and prebiotics can keep your gut—and ultimately your brain—healthy.

Probiotics are supplements or foods like yogurt or sauerkraut that contain live microorganisms and improve healthy bacteria in the body.

Prebiotics are typically high-fiber foods such as bananas, lentils or oats that stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria in the colon.

The brain-gut connection

"There's a huge connection between the gut and the brain," says Mary Feldman, DO, a neurologist and co-director of the Parkinson's Disease and Movement Disorders Program at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center.

The connection is known as the gut-brain axis, a network of nerves that connects the brain and gut and sends signals back and forth.

As an example, Feldman points to new research that bolsters a theory about Parkinson's disease, a brain disorder.

A recent study says early symptoms of Parkinson's disease start in a protein found in the gut. That protein travels through the nervous system and reaches susceptible nerves in the brain.

"One early symptom of Parkinson's includes constipation," Feldman says. "This happens years before a tremor, stiffness and trouble walking."

Like dementia and stroke, you can help lower your risk of Parkinson's disease with exercise and a healthy diet.

Take your vitamins

Instead of over-the-counter brain-boosting supplements, experts suggest trying Vitamins D, B12, C or E. They also recommend omega-3 fish oil, zinc or selenium.

These vitamins and minerals serve as antioxidants to neutralize harmful free radicals in the body and help prevent inflammation.

Mediterranean diet, coffee and spices

Follow a Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes plant-based foods and healthy fats. Focus on eating vegetables, fruits, whole grains, yogurt, cheese, and fish that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

Tiwana, of Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center, also suggests drinking caffeinated black coffee.

Up to two cups of black coffee daily can protect the brain and improve motor and cognitive performance in aging and depression, she says. Coffee has also been shown to prevent Parkinson's and dementia.

She says herbs or spices that can boost memory include turmeric, ginger, sage, thyme and cinnamon.

"Make sure you also avoid sugar and refined carbohydrates," Tiwana adds.

And skip alcohol for optimal results.

Get some shut-eye

Sleep is essential to your brain's health. Sleep helps you form new pathways in your brain so you can learn, stay sharp and create new memories.

For adults, your best bet is 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night.

Exercising body and mind

Cardiovascular exercise and strength training will keep your body healthy and benefit your brain.

"Strength training, especially, has been shown to improve cognition, focus and attention," Tiwana says.

You can also flex your brain's neuroplasticity with puzzles, games and learning a new skill.

Participate in activities that stimulate your thinking and keep you active socially. That's because engaging with others helps your brain be flexible and resilient.

"Social connections help you cognitively," Tiwana says, adding that being social improves your memory and thinking skills.

"Spend time with other people," she adds. "In the long run, those connections will benefit you the most."

The toll of brain injuries and stroke—and the brain's resilience

Social situations can be challenging, especially after a brain injury or stroke. Experts say it's common to feel socially isolated during recovery.

1 in 60 people in the United States are living with a traumatic brain injury-related disability. Brain injuries can result in emotional, behavioral and cognitive changes that require physical, occupational or speech therapy.

Neuroplasticity plays a key role in recovery by constantly updating, reprogramming and relearning—a critical need after a traumatic brain injury or stroke.

About 2.7 million Americans sustain traumatic brain injuries annually. For concussions, 80% resolve within two weeks through a combination of mental and physical rest.

Recovering from a stroke can take weeks, months or years. Studies show that between 30 to 70% of stroke survivors experience cognitive issues.

"Stroke symptoms often are the most severe at the beginning," says Megan Donohue, MD, a vascular neurologist at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center.

"With time and therapy, stroke survivors will recover some if not all of their previous function," she adds. "You can go back to feeling like yourself again."

The essential you.



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