When it comes to maintaining your brain’s health, the adage “use it or lose it” has never been more true.

Advances in science and medicine mean we now understand far more about how the brain works than we ever have, and while there's still a long way to go, researchers are learning that healthy brain habits can contribute to living a long, productive and prosperous life.

Author of The Brain Book Dr John Hart says we don't have to accept that our brain function will break down, simply because, That's what happens as you get older. In fact, he believes that there's a lot we can do to help our “noggin” function like a well-oiled machine at any age. 

“When you get a brand new car, you don’t have to take it to the mechanic because it runs perfectly. Our brain is like that when we’re in our 20s. But after, say, 50 years, you might take it back to the mechanic and say, ‘Can you fix it? There’s a lot wrong with it’. As you get older, Mother Nature does less for you,” he explains.

He says that’s why we have to work much harder – and challenge ourselves more – to keep our grey matter in excellent shape.

While you can’t regrow dead brain cells (we lose about 8000 nerve cells a day), Dr Hart explains that you can repair “sick” cells. That's because up to 90 per cent of our brain ageing is caused by environmental and lifestyle factors, and these can be tweaked and improved upon.

So, what are the signs that our cells need repair? According to Dr Hart, your brain signals it is unwell when it manifests “mood disorders” such as: irritability, depression, brain fog, anxiety, poor concentration and memory.

“As you get older, you have to look at the big picture when it comes to your health. So not just at your physical wellbeing, but also your brain health and see whether what you’re doing is working to give yourself the best chance of avoiding common degenerative illnesses such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease,” he says. More than 353,000 Australians currently live with dementia, with forecasts that this will increase to more than 400,000 in less than five years.

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Keeping physically active is an important step to better brain health

But, rather than fret that it’s too late to do anything, Dr Hart, who works in the field of longevity, age reversal, exercise physiology and nutrition, says we can all work on improving our brain health quite easily. He says if we do certain things every day (see five tips below), this will go a long way to shifting our brain from being sluggish to speeding along – or firing – very nicely.

Healthy habits that improve brain function

  • Step outside and spend an hour in the early morning sun
  • Eat a healthy diet low in processed foods
  • Move your body regularly and sit for fewer than three hours
  • Have fun and enjoy life, and
  • Make sure you sleep about 7 to 8 hours uninterrupted every night.

All these contribute toward your body getting rid of stress, chronic infections and environmental toxins. “For most people, they need to put in more of the good stuff and take out more of the bad stuff, that’s the way forward,” he says.

Some of the “bad stuff” includes being overweight, poor diet, smoking, recreational drugs, and something you may not have thought of: poor gut health.

“If you experience symptoms like bloating and farting, your gut may be inflamed. The health of your gut is crucial to the health of your body,” he says. “If you have concerns about this, there are tests that can show if you have a ‘leaky gut’.”

Dr Hart says quality sleep is crucial because this is when most of our tissue repair occurs. “Your body does degenerate during the course of each day, that’s why you get tired by the end of the day,” he explains. “At night, your body goes into repair mode. Everything you can do to improve that regeneration process helps the brain.”

While it is valuable to learn a new skill, do a brain teaser like the cryptic crossword, travel widely, broaden your social network or challenge yourself with brain training games, Dr Hart says none of these work on their own.

Exercise your brain with a teaser or sudoku. Click here to play some puzzles!

“You need to be aware that everything you do contributes, nothing is in isolation so there is not one thing you can do to improve your brain’s function,” he says.

“Find ways to challenge yourself, ‘stretch’ the most important organ in your body. Find a person with a brain that is better than yours. Admire it.

“Try not to do the same thing over and over again, mix it up. People don’t have to be set in their ways.”

Dr Hart says it’s also vital to focus on the good things in your life and maintain strong emotional connections with family, partners and friends. By encouraging positive experiences in our lives, our grey matter will respond accordingly. “Avoid negative people and situations,” he says. “Maintain loving relationships, remember to laugh a lot, forgive someone you’ve had a grudge against, practice gratitude, take up meditation, avoid being socially isolated,” he adds.

And while a lot of people worry about forgetfulness and memory lapses as we age, Dr Hart says there is no need to worry if we learn as a society to shift our focus. He believes we need to change how we view “normal health” and rather aim for “optimal health”.

“Normal is what everybody else is doing,” he says. “You can choose to be that or you can choose to be someone who strives for optimal health. You can train your brain to be at its optimal best by doing all the positive, healthy things I’ve outlined,” he says. “It really is a case of healthy body, healthy mind.”

The Brain Book by Dr John Hart $26.99,

Have you tried any of the healthy brain options Dr Hart has recommended? Let us know in the comments section below.

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