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Can our lifestyle affect our Brain?

Sandhya Basu





When was the last time you had a pizza or a burger? How often do you drink aerated drinks like Pepsi, Coca-Cola, etc., to quench your thirst? When was the last time you exercised or had a good sleep? If you have a lifestyle that includes constantly sitting in front of a laptop, binging on junk food, and spending sleepless nights, then this blog is for you!


Don’t worry, this blog is not going to scare you or make you feel guilty for managing your lifestyle the best you can; instead, it’s going to give a reality check on the consequences of our lifestyle choices and how we can make conscious decisions to improve the way we live.


Given today’s time, an individual (on average), consumes more calories than they did almost 50 years ago. These calories can be easily seen through our increasing waistlines and the development of early health issues—especially diabetes and heart-related diseases. This is something we all know! Words like ‘cholesterol’, ‘fluctuating blood pressure’, ‘heart issues’, have unfortunately become common in our society. But what if we say that such unhealthy food consumption or unsteady lifestyle factors have an effect on our brains as well?!


Professor Cherbuin, a faculty of ANU Centre for Research on Ageing, Health, and Wellbeing, said “…people are eating away at their brain with devastating fast-food diet and minimal-to-no exercise.” Also, an author of recent research published in Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, Prof. Cherbuin asserted a strong association between unhealthy lifestyle patterns (junk diet and no exercise) and a decline in brain functions.

We often think that dysfunctions like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia only occur among senior citizens. Well, this is not entirely true! We agree that the occurrence of dementia or Alzheimer’s increase with age, but the seeds of these diseases are sown long before that! Lifestyle factors such as excessive alcohol consumption, hypertension, obesity, depression, lack of physical activity, and social isolation contribute to the development of dementia and related brain issues (coupled with family history and genetic risk factors).


Another study at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, explored the association between brain structure and vascular risk factors such as smoking, high blood and pulse pressure, cholesterol, and obesity (measured by waist-hip ratio). The researchers found that these vascular risk factors lead to complications in the blood supply to the brain. This, in turn, leads to reduced blood flow and abnormal changes in the brain. Except for cholesterol, other risk factors are also involved in brain shrinkage. Brain areas linked to complex skills like thinking, problem-solving, etc., were also affected by these risk factors.


But the good news is that, unlike our genetic code and family history, lifestyle factors are much easier to change!


Yes, we know that due to the entire work-from-home culture our schedule has gone for a toss. We also know that most of us stay away from homes and henceforth, ordering food online is much easier than cooking at home (given the endless meetings that we have to attend!). What we are going to suggest is something that is doable and will not interfere with your work schedule.

  1. Cognitive Stimulation: Research shows that brain-related activities generate new connections in the brain—a concept known as neuroplasticity. Simply put, any mentally stimulating task will help in re-building our brain. Start your morning with a small puzzle or draw/paint/write during the weekends. You can download a puzzle app on your phone and solve them in your 5 minutes break time from anywhere!

  2. Physical Exercise: This may sound tiring, but it’s not! Seat a goal of 5000 steps every day and just start walking. If your workplace is near to your house, then avoid taking any transport. If it’s far, then stop your transport midway and walk back to your house. If nothing of this works, then just go out for 2-3 rounds after dinner to get some fresh air. Besides decreasing blood pressure, cholesterol, mental stress, and maintaining sugar levels, exercises can spur the growth of new nerve cells, improve connections between brain cells, and increase the supply of oxygenated blood to the brain.

  3. Food Habits: Instead of ordering food online, rely on fresh fruits and nuts. Carry fruits to your workplace (it’s a feasible and a healthy option!). Have green vegetables and fish (if you are a non-vegetarian). Have more boiled or sautéed food than deep-fried.

  4. Understand your Emotions: We may tend to become anxious, depressed, exhausted, and sleep-deprived because of our work pressure and other lifestyle challenges. Such things have been shown to increase the risk of mental decline. Address your issues and take steps to improve your emotional wellbeing.

Other factors such as building social networks, avoiding tobacco, decreasing alcohol consumption, and improving blood sugar, cholesterol, and pressure can also improve your mental wellbeing.

By starting to acknowledge and eliminate our risky lifestyle choices, we can improve our mental wellbeing. Since our brain-body connection is robust, improving our lifestyle not only keeps us disease-free but also improves our overall wellbeing. Having written about the importance of lifestyle management in preserving our brain quality, I would like to end with a quote given by David Perlmutter, the author of Gran Brain:

“We are designed to be smart people our entire lives. The brain is supposed to work well until our last breath.”

~ David Perlmutter


References:

  1. Mintzer, J., Donovan, K. A., Kindy, A. Z., Lock, S. L., Chura, L. R., & Barracca, N. (2019). Lifestyle choices and brain health. Frontiers in medicine, 6, 204.

  2. Pasinetti, G. M., & Eberstein, J. A. (2008). Metabolic syndrome and the role of dietary lifestyles in Alzheimer’s disease. Journal of neurochemistry, 106(4), 1503-1514.

  3. Casaletto, K. B., Staffaroni, A. M., Wolf, A., Appleby, B., Brushaber, D., Coppola, G., ... & ARTFL/LEFFTDS Study. (2020). Active lifestyles moderate clinical outcomes in autosomal dominant frontotemporal degeneration. Alzheimer's & Dementia, 16(1), 91-105.

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