Most of us have seen the effect of cognitive decline in a loved one. As a child, I lived with a grandparent who repeated some of his life experiences over and over. The adults in my life said this unusual behavior was due to hardening of the arteries. Today, we see far more serious forms of cognitive decline, dementia and Alzheimer’s, and the incidence of its occurrence is overwhelming our health care systems. What can we do?
Maria Shriver, author and correspondent for NBC News recently said it well, “Talking about cognitive health is a conversation that we need to start having in our country, across all ages.”
Avoid Anything that Hurts Your Brain
The good news is there are practical steps that we can all take to protect our brain. Yes, we do have power over brain disease. You may have heard psychiatrist, brain researcher, and author, Dr. Daniel Amen speak on his insightful PBS-TV specials. He advises us to avoid anything that hurts our brain such as:
• Recreational drugs & alcohol • Diabetes
• Obesity • Chronic stress
• Lack of activity • Emotional trauma
• Diet low in nutrients • Unhealthy peer group
• Insomnia • Denial: Ignoring your brain’s vulnerability
• Nicotine/Smoking • Environmental toxins
• Excess caffeine • Head injury
Lifestyle Choices to Heal Your Brain: an Action Plan
As you can infer from the above list, there is much that we can do to heal our brain through lifestyle choices. It’s never too late to take these important steps. Today we know that the brain grows new neurons (neurogenesis), and it adapts by rewiring itself (neuroplasticity) to reshape the mind and our life.
I consider myself fortunate to have I stumbled into a healthier way of life 43 years ago when I was introduced to meditation. One evening a good friend told me he was going to an introductory lecture about meditation, and I accepted his invitation to join him. To my surprise, I was excited about what I heard in the evening’s discussion and decided to enroll in the meditation course.
Within just one week of adding two short periods of meditation to each day, I was feeling less tired and more alert. I looked forward to the end of the work day so I could sit down and meditate. I was also happier, and more confident and enthusiastic. I was sleeping better, and in the coming months, I realized that I was making healthier food choices. This frequently happens; when you heal in one area of your life, you begin to be drawn to other healthy behaviors.
Positive change begins to snowball. Some people for example, after learning to meditate, begin to exercise or move more. They may go for walks, do yoga, or work out in a gym. Others, like me, begin to eat more nutrient rich foods, and less sweets and processed foods. Stress levels decrease as a result of such positive lifestyle changes; we grow calmer and handle the challenges of life in a healthier manner. Spontaneously we begin making better decisions, and negative influences such as smoking, overeating, and self-medicating with alcohol and drugs become less attractive.
These lifestyle changes are simple action steps leading to a healthier brain and improved cognitive health. I say simple, however behavioral change does requires discipline or commitment. Be patient, it’s about progress not perfection. A good place to start is with a meditation practice because it a mental technique dealing directly with the brain. Whatever we choose, however, we begin where we are, and progress one day at a time. So, if sitting 15 or 20 minutes to meditate seems unworkable, go for 5 or 10 minutes. After a month, you may find yourself adding to your meditation time as you experience the value of that quiet time.
The good news is that you will have a healthier brain and life by embracing some of these strategies and thoughts. The rewards will be gratifying. It is after all, cool to be healthy.