Article by: MaryEllen | Thursday, February 14, 2013

By Zen-Chuang

Do you know that your brain steadily loses its weight after your 30th birthday?  This “brain loss” means less ability for you to learn and keep your mind sharp.  Until recently, scientists thought this type of brain loss was irreversible.

The good news is that scientists were wrong about this, and now we know there is much you can do to combat brain loss.

Many lifestyle choices can optimize your brain plasticity.  Brain plasticity is the brain’s ability to change its structures and functions to meet changing circumstances, learn new things, and heal from injuries.

Optimizing your brain plasticity may minimize and compensate for the “brain loss” that occurs with the years.  And just like a company that gets downsized, it may do even better than before the downsizing with much better re-organization.

In this article we will explore 6 fundamental actions you can take to optimize your brain plasticity. These will help you maximize your brain power, now and in the future.

It just so happens that these actions also enhance your overall life quality as well.  What a deal!

Rule #1: Challenge Your Brain

For a long time scientists debated a chicken and egg question.  Is it a lack of engaging activities for the brain that contributes to mental decline?  Or is mental decline the reason people do not engage their minds?

A very clever study from Rush Medical School in 2012 offered the first evidence for the answer and it is good news for all of us.  The study found that it is the lack of mental engagement that contributes to decline.  Frequent mental stimulation leads to better mental functioning.(1)

And even better, you do not need to do any fancy or snazzy activities to stimulate your brain.  ANY activities that make you think, analyze, or remember will do.  The mentally stimulating activities in this clever study included reading the newspaper, writing letters, and playing games such as chess and checkers.

As another bonus, keeping your brain engaged also makes you more open, flexible, and creative.  This is according to another study published in the June 2012 issue of Psychology and Aging.(2)

Rule #2: Be Social

Not only does a good connection with people bring joy to life, it also counters brain loss.   Studies have shown that if you are more socially active, you will have less mental decline in old age(3)  and a lower risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s.(4)

You do not have to have 1000 “friends” on Facebook to have a good social connection with people.  All you need is just one enriching and sustaining relationship. This can be with a friend, a spouse, a family member etc.

Rule #3: Manage Stress

Chronic stress can hasten brain loss in areas of the brain involving memory, learning, and executive functions.  Meanwhile, the same chronic stress enlarges an area of the brain that makes you more anxious.

An obvious solution to deal with stressors is to reduce or rid yourself of them altogether.  But this is often not within your power.

Fortunately, even though you are not able to change many outside situations, you can
manage them for the better.  You can also change the way you look at stress in ways that work better for you and your brain.

For instance, you often can get a different perspective by talking to someone else. Or, taking a break to do things that give you pleasure may also do your “head” some good.  Exercise can also be a great stress buster.

Try meditation for stress relief. Recent studies suggest that meditation promotes the growth of the brain regions related to attention and executive functions.(5)  Meditation can be performed in different ways and you may be very surprised to learn that certain types of meditation are easy for you.

Rule #4: Combat Depression

The effect of depression on the brain is similar to that of chronic stress, but is more severe.  Often when a concerned family or friend of a patient suspects that the patient has dementia, one of the first things I do is to make sure it is NOT really depression.

There are two kinds of depression. The difference between them is whether or not they allow us to carry out our everyday life and interactions.

It is perfectly normal to feel down and depressed for short periods after some setbacks.  In this case we can manage the stressors as mentioned earlier.

Sometimes the sense of doom and gloom from stressors, or for no apparent reason at all, may last for more than a few weeks.  They do not seem to be lifting at all.  This is what we call major depression in medical practice. For this type of chronic depression, you need to see a professional.

Luckily, there are effective treatments for depression.  These may include counseling like cognitive therapy and certain medications. More and more, we are finding that these treatments relieve depression and help areas of the brain recover from brain loss.(6)

Rule #5: Eat Well to Boost Brain Power

Do you know that your brain makes up only 2% of your body weight, but uses up 20% of the energy and nutrients from your food?(7)  Eating well for your brain is therefore a “no-brainer!”

In order for your brain to repair damage and make more new cells to re-supply what may be lost, you need to provide it with the best building material from your food.  This means eating good protein from fish, nuts, legumes, eggs, low-fat dairy products, and lean meats.

Enjoy plenty of vegetables and fruits.  And use whole grains to give your brain nice clean fuel to run smoothly.

Rule #6: Exercise and Stay Active

Physical activities protect you in many different ways from brain loss by improving memory and learning.

One way exercise helps is by optimizing the connections between your brain cells.  Another is by providing stimulating power for the production of natural factors to make more brain cells.

Exercise improves the quality of other support systems in your body that your brain depends on to best function and regenerate itself.(8)  One of these systems is your cardiovascular system, which includes your heart and blood vessels.

Knowing this helps us make a very easy connection – what is good for your heart is good for your brain.

Aim for 20-30 minutes of physical activities a day.  Combining cardio exercise, strength training, and flexibility moves provides the best overall workout.

Putting It All Together

Against the march of time, you can build a great foundation for the sharpest mind at any age.  The old saying is wrong.  You can teach an old dog new tricks. You can learn and grow to enjoy your life to its fullest at any age!

About this Author: Zen-Jay Chuang, MD, is a primary care physician and Chairman of the Whole Health Alerts advisory board.  Click here to find out how Dr. Zen-Jay’s biodynamic, cutting edge approach to ancient and modern medicine can help you achieve the best health of your life.

1.    Wilson, R. et al. Neurology, April 2012.
2. &Fa=main.doiLanding&doi=10.1037/a0025918
6. – Neuroplasticity and major depression, the role of modern antidepressant drugs.