When it comes to maintaining your brain’s health, the adage “use it or lose it” has never been truer. Here’s why!

Advances in science and medicine mean we now know far more about the brain than we ever have, and while there is still plenty to discover about its role, we are learning that how we incorporate our brain health into our daily lives can be a big contributor to living a long, productive and prosperous life.

Sydney-based Dr John Hart has written his first book on the subject, The Brain Book, and he says we can do so much to help our “noggin” be like a well-oiled machine rather than just expecting it to slowly break down because “that’s what happens as you get older”.

Did you know? We lose about 8000 nerve cells daily

It’s important to understand that while you can’t regrow dead brain cells (we lose about 8000 nerve cells a day) you can repair “sick” cells according to Dr Hart. He says up to 90 per cent of our brain ageing is causes by environmental and lifestyle factors that can be tweaked and improved upon.

Dr Hart says your brain is showing signs it’s 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 adds.

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It is up to us to constantly challenge ourselves to keep our grey matter in good shape 

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.

Did you know? Roughly 90 per cent of our brain ageing can be helped by altering our lifestyle and environment

Dr Hart likens our brain to a car. “When you get a brand new car, you don’t have to take it to the mechanic because it runs perfectly. Our brain’s 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.

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, this will go a long way to shifting our brain from being sluggish to speeding along – or firing – very nicely.

6 daily steps to improve brain health:

  1. Get outside and spend an hour in the early morning sun.
  2. Eat a healthy diet low in processed foods.
  3. Move your body regularly and sit for fewer than three hours.
  4. Exercise (10,000 steps is good) and maintain fitness.
  5. Have fun and enjoy life.
  6. Ensure you sleep about 7-8 hours uninterrupted every night.

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Getting the right hours of sleep every night can help improve your overall mood during the day

All these contribute towards 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.

Did you know? Poor gut health can impact on your brain health

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.”

He says that while it’s valuable to learn a new skill, do a brain teaser like the cryptic crossword, read a new author, travel widely, broaden your social network, challenge yourself with brain training games, none of these work on their own.

“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.”

Challenge yourself with brain teasers to improve your brain's function. Why not give this riddle a go?

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

Did you know? Laughing, being forgiving and doing meditation can help your brain health

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 dismissively. “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.”

What are you most concerned about regarding your brain health? Let us know in the comments below.

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