Keys to maintaining good brain health

Your brain is pretty awesome. About 100 billion nerve cells work together to make you think flexibly and quickly.

But just like the rest of the body, your brain may not be as strong as you get a little older. Maybe you find yourself having to write things down, or you forget about appointments, or you can’t follow a conversation or action on the TV without straining.

Fortunately, it’s possible to train your brain, too.

The keys to our nervous system are gray and white matter.”

Hermundur Sigmundsson, Professor, Department of Psychology, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).

Roughly speaking, gray matter is made up of nerve cells – or neurons – and dendrites, while white matter provides connections between cells (myelinated axons) and helps speed and distribute signals.

Three factors contribute to good brain health

A recent article in the journal Brain Sciences brings together much of what we know from previous research in brain health. The researchers went to great lengths to be comprehensive in their theoretical perspective articles and offered 101 references to articles on keeping our gray and white matter in shape.

“If you want to keep your brain in top shape, three factors come into play,” says Sigmundsson.

These factors are:

  1. Physical exercise.
  2. Being social.
  3. Having strong interests. Learn new things and don’t shy away from new challenges.

1. Motion

This is probably the biggest challenge for many of us. If you sit on your back too much, your body becomes lazy. Unfortunately, the same is true for the brain.

According to Sigmundsson and his colleagues, “An active lifestyle promotes the development of the central nervous system and prevents brain aging.”

So it is important not to get stuck in the chair. It takes effort and there is no way around it. If you have a sedentary job, go to school or after work, you need to be active, including physically.

2. Relationships

Some of us are happiest alone or with a few people, and we know that “hell is other people” – to loosely paraphrase writer-philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. (Although, admittedly, his version is a bit more attractive.) But on this one, you have to steel yourself.

“Relationships and interactions with other people contribute to a number of complex biological factors that can prevent the brain from slowing down,” says Sigmundsson.

Being in the company of other people, such as conversation or physical contact, supports good brain function.

3. Passion

This last point may have something to do with your personality, but if you’ve read this far, there’s a good chance you already have the necessary foundation and are probably ready to learn.

“Having a passion or a strong interest in something can be a decisive, driving factor that leads us to learn new things. Over time, it affects the development and maintenance of our neural networks,” says Sigmundsson.

Stay curious. Don’t give up and let things always go the same way. You’re never too old to do something you’ve never done. Maybe now is the time to learn to play a new musical instrument.

Use it or lose it

Zygmundsson collaborated with graduate student Benjamin H. Dybendal and associate professor Simone Grassini at the University of Stavanger on the comprehensive paper.

Thus, their research presents a similar picture for the brain as it does for the body. You must exercise your brain so that it does not rot. As the saying goes, “Use it or lose it.”

“Brain development is closely related to lifestyle. Physical exercise, relationships and passion help develop and maintain the basic structures of our brain as we age,” says Sigmundsson.

So these three factors offer some keys to maintaining a good quality of life – and hopefully – aging well.


Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Journal reference:

Hermundur Sigmundsson, Benjamin H Dybendal and Simone Grassini. Movement, connectivity and passion in the physiological and cognitive aging of the brain. Brain Sciences. DOI: 10.3390/brainsci12091122

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