Here’s a fun little experiment to take your mind off of this year’s seemingly never-ending election campaign: take a walk around your block, and ask everyone you meet if they know how to keep their hearts healthy. Chances are, you’ll get accurate answers addressing everything from the importance of exercise and not smoking, to the benefits of a low-fat, whole-grain diet. In part, that’s because heart health has been a subject of research and intense public discussion for years, prominently discussed everywhere from the media to cereal boxes. Now for the fun part of the experiment: ask the same folks if they have any idea what could be done to keep their brains healthy. Would they know?
Most likely, the answer is no. In part, the problem is one of definition: just how do we define brain health? Like everything else pertaining to the brain, the question itself is complicated. The brain, to borrow a term from computer science, is our operating system, the prism through which we perceive and analyze everything around us, the only engine we have to make sense of ourselves and everything around us. Moreover, the brain influences all of our other organs, from our heart and lungs to our immune system. Neuroscientists across the world are are coming together to research the myriad variables of brain health, some common-sensical and others deeply surprising.
Evolution has prepared us for a gradual increase in the number of things to which we have to pay attention, not for an onslaught of screens, lights, and other distractions each clamoring for our attention.
Take, for example, the question of what happens to our brains as we age. New studies are showing how our behavior impacts healthy aging. As we age, routine becomes, well, routine. These routines shape our lives into ever narrowing circles of habits. At 30 or 40, the peak of our professional and family lives, a typical day may involve two or three meetings at the office, picking the kids up from soccer practice or driving them to a friend’s house, and making plans with friends to have dinner or catch a new movie. At 70 or 80, and now well into retirement, we’re less likely to engage in new hobbies and activities and stick to our comfort and routines. This may not be the best for our brains. To stay agile and robust, our brains benefit from diverse and new activities, new hobbies and interactions with others.
Your cell phone may be another unlikely culprit. With so many of us spending so much time glued to the small screens of our smart phones, we’re at risk of upsetting our circadian rhythm and jeopardizing the restful sleep our brains so desperately need to rebuild, recover and optimize its function. And while 30 minutes of looking at the news or checking Facebook before bed may not seem like too much of a big deal to you, the blue light emitted by your smart phone signals to your body that it’s not yet time to sleep. That’s because humans have, for millennia, lived according to nature’s rhythms, and took their cues about sleep and wakefulness from the sun and the moon. Exposure to bright blue light right before bed leads our inner clock to believe it’s daytime rather than nighttime.
In the last 150 years, we’ve created far more stimuli than our brains could ever successfully process. Evolution has prepared us for a gradual increase in the number of things to which we have to pay attention, not for an onslaught of screens, lights, and other distractions each clamoring for our attention. That’s why understanding brain health is more crucial today than ever.
While the brain still holds many mysteries, there are nonetheless many things we can do to positively influence brain health and overall wellness. Advances in neuroscience research are significantly improving our understanding of brain health and performance across the span of our lives. In this new brain health series, we will bring you the latest from the labs of some of the leading experts in the field, from the role of chronic inflammation in brain disease, to sleep specialists researching the connection between race and sleep apnea, to clinical psychologists studying the relationships between aging, nutrition, exercise and cognitive function. These new insights and perspectives may not immediately improve your memory or your concentration, but they’ll help you better understand how your brain works and how to keep it agile, engaged, and healthy. It is time for us to embrace brain health.
This is the first piece in a special brain health initiative curated by Dr. Ali Rezai, Director of Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Stanley D. and Joan H. Ross Center for Brain Health and Performance. For more, visit The Huffington Post’s Brain Health page.