Healthy Body, Healthy Brain

Most of us love a buy-one-get-one-free deal, but even if you are not a bargain shopper, stick with me, because this bonus is good for every body—and brain.

Through the miracles of modern medicine, organ transplants have saved countless lives.  While it is a complex and dangerous operation, followed by a lifetime of continued care, organ transplants are truly amazing surgeries.  Every major organ can be transplanted—except the brain.  The brain you have is the only brain you will ever have, and it is imperative that it is well taken care of. 

Your brain, as the master computer of the human body, is the most complex and individualized organ.  It determines who we are physically, as well as mentally, emotionally, socially and culturally.  It makes us who we are, which is why, when the brain fails us, we feel it is a reflection on ourselves. 

My mother worried constantly that she was losing her cognitive abilities.  I never saw a single sign of this, and she died healthy—accidentally—at age 71.  I didn’t have to watch her mentally decline, and for this, despite the heartbreak, I am thankful. 

I would reassure her that it was okay if she forgot where she put her keys, but not okay if she forgot what her keys were for. 

I have friends who express their concerns about themselves to me.  I am a speech language pathologist, and I work with adults who demonstrate this mental decline.  They are concerned about their difficulty remembering people’s names, or have difficulty thinking of the name of that thing—you know, that thing you put bread in and it browns it on both sides, and makes it hard…oh yeah…the toaster.  While I cannot definitively or ethically diagnose cognitive decline in them, they know I see it professionally, and want me to allay their fears. 

I will be 55 years old next month, and most of my friends are within five years of my age.  I gently let them know that I, too, have this difficulty sometimes, and as long as the words come eventually, then we are all likely okay, at least for now.

I am old enough to know from personal experience that with age, our bodies begin to decline in physical function.  I am also old enough to know from personal experience that the brain can slow down its processing and function with age as well. 

Much has been researched, written and publicized about the importance of taking care of our bodies as we age, and more recently, brain health has been researched and published as well. 

As the population ages overall, more cognitive decline is occurring, due in part to the sheer number of people who are aging.  The Baby Boomer generation (those born between 1946-1964) are living longer, and consequently suffering from more illness as they continue to age.  This combination of increased age and sheer numbers of people accounts for the rise in dementia diagnoses. 

Many of my friends are experiencing the devastation of slowly losing a parent to dementia.  I didn’t have to experience this with either of my parents, and while I work with these patients professionally, my heart breaks for all involved on a personal level.  The brain determines who we are as social humans, and when it cannot function as it should, then the person who was known and loved no longer seems like the same person. 

Many people worry about their future brain health.  It is important to separate worry from concern:  worry is something we have no control over, and concern is something we can try to change. Worrying about one’s future brain health without taking positive steps to protect it is pointless; concern that leads to steps one can take to maximize brain health is always a good idea.

So, here’s the bonus I spoke of:  when you take good care of your body, you are also taking good care of your brain.  And here are some important steps you can take to proactively address those concerns.

  • Eat wisely—not too much, not too fast, enough fruits and vegetables, not too much refined sugar or bad carbs, moderate alcohol consumption.  You know the drill.
  • Go to bed and go to sleep!  Most of us need 8 hours of sleep nightly.  Turn your screens off an hour before bed.  Don’t drink caffeine after dinner.  Relax by reading a book—a real book, not one with a screen.
  • Drink enough water.  Enough is defined as half your body weight in ounces daily.  Unless you are on fluid restrictions from your health care provider, there is no other excuse.   If you are light years away from this amount, anything closer is progress.  Since our bodies are made of water, other beverages don’t count like water does.  Enjoy them, but be sure to drink water, too.
  • Keep stress low.  Just as too much physical exertion in the wrong ways stresses your body and negatively affects it, too much mental/emotional exertion in the wrong ways negatively affects your brain, which, in turn, affects your body as well.
  • Practice relaxing.  Do something you enjoy.  Take time off if you need to.  Breathe deeply.  Engage in a hobby.  The more your brain gets in the groove with your hobby, say, reading or putting a puzzle together, the more you are exercising it.  Passive relaxation like watching TV is good as well, but a good mix of both active leisure and passive relaxation is best.  Feeding your brain with a book, or stimulating it by learning a new language, taking up a new hobby or crossword puzzles are all good exercise for your brain. 
  • Move it!  Your body is meant to be a moving machine and exercise is the best way to keep it able to move.  Ask anyone who exercises regularly, and they will tell you that while it is indeed a commitment, and isn’t always fun, they know it makes all the difference in their lives.  That is why they keep going.  Walking is likely the simplest and one of the most effective forms of exercise, and all it takes is a good pair of walking shoes.   If you are physically disabled, there are exercise programs tailored to disabilities.  Your health care provider can help you find one that fits your abilities.

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The human brain is indeed wondrous, and it’s the only one you will ever have.  It should be taken care of as much as the body is taken care of.  If you have concerns about your brain function, or a loved one as well, be sure to visit with your health care provider with these concerns.  They can provide much more information about brain health.   Remember, a concern is something you can take action toward, so take whatever positive steps you can take to keep your brain—and your body healthy.