Brain and Cognition
Brain health affects our physical sensations and movement, our mental and emotional processes, and our behavior and social interactions. Those functions pretty much sum up what it means to be human, so enhancing brain health is important at every age. It’s clear, though, that aging takes an outsize toll on our neurological centers, so every year that passes increases the value of measures that reinforce optimal cognition, memory, and mood.
About 40% of people aged 65 and over have some type of memory loss, and according to the CDC, one in nine people age 45 and over report confusion or memory loss.
At the other end of the spectrum, a decade-long study found that U.S. children aged 1 – 5 consumed only 40% of the recommended amount of the most important type of fat for brain development (EPA/DHA).
Clearly, brain health deserves attention.
What factors influence your brain health?
Lifestyle plays an important role in brain health. The AARP identifies these six pillars of brain health: keeping active socially, challenging your brain regularly, managing stress, exercising, getting good sleep, and eating a healthy diet.
Stress affects your brain through hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPA axis as it is commonly called. The hypothalamus and pituitary gland are located just above the brain stem. They interact with the adrenal glands, located on top of the kidneys, by sending hormones into the bloodstream that signal the adrenals to release cortisol. Cortisol increases blood pressure and blood sugar into the bloodstream. That’s fine if you need to outrun a charging rhinoceros, but when these signals get stuck in the “on” position due to chronic stress, they can do more harm than good.
For example, high cortisol levels interfere with memory and thinking and can contribute to mood disorders like anxiety and depression. Another interrelationship is the gut-brain axis. When you’re worried or upset, you won’t digest your food well. Likewise, an intestinal infection can cause brain fog or irritability. Interestingly, the billions of beneficial bacteria that live in our digestive tracts are part of this brain-gut cross-talk. In fact, those bacteria actually manufacture neurotransmitters like tryptophan and GABA that get sent to the brain to use. That’s why keeping your gut healthy and nourishing your microflora is an essential part of brain health.