Keys to maintaining good brain health

Your brain is pretty awesome. About 100 billion nerve cells work together to keep you agile and quick in your thinking.

But just like the rest of your body, your brain may not be as robust when you get a little older. Maybe you have to write things down, or you forgot about appointments, or you can’t follow the conversation or the action on TV without getting tired.

Fortunately, it is possible to exercise 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)

In general, gray matter consists of nerve cells – or neurons – and dendrites, while white matter provides the contacts between cells (myelinated axons) and contributes to the speed of transmission and distribution of signals.

Three factors contribute to good brain health

Recent Journal Article Brain Sciences brings together much of what we know from previous research in brain health. The researchers went to great lengths to be thorough in their theoretical perspective and provided 101 citations to articles on how to keep our gray and white matter in shape.

“Three factors stand out if you want to keep your brain at its best,” says Sigmundsson.

These factors are:

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

1. Motion

This is probably the biggest challenge for many of us. Your body gets lazy if you sit too long on your bum. Unfortunately, the same goes for the brain.

“An active lifestyle helps develop the central nervous system and counteract brain aging,” according to Sigmundsson and colleagues.

Therefore, it is important not to get stuck in your chair. This takes effort and there is no way around it. If you do a sedentary job, go to school or when you finish work, you need to activate yourself, including physically.

2. Relationships

Some of us are happiest alone or with few people, and we know that “hell is other people” – to loosely translate the writer-philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s phrase. (Though his version was admittedly a bit more involved.) But in that regard, you have to steel yourself.

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

Being with other people, such as through 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, chances are good that you already have the necessary foundation and are probably willing to learn.

“Passion or intense interest in something can be the decisive, driving factor that drives us to learn new things. Over time, this affects the development and maintenance of our neural networks,” says Sigmundsson.

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

Use it or lose it

Sigmundsson collaborated with graduate student Benjamin H. Dybendal and associate professor Simone Grassini at the University of Stavanger on the completed work.

Their research thus presents a similar picture for the brain as for the body. You have to exercise your brain so it doesn’t go bad. “Use it or lose it,” as the saying goes.

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

These three factors therefore offer some of the 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, relationship and passion in normal and cognitive brain aging. Brain Sciences. DOI: 10.3390/brainsci12091122

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