Keys to maintaining good brain health

Your brain is pretty amazing. About 100 billion nerve cells work together to keep you nimble and quick in your thinking.

But just like the rest of your body, your brain may not be as powerful when you get a little older. Maybe you need to write things down, or you forget appointments, or you can’t fully follow the conversation or action on TV without getting tired.

Fortunately, it’s possible to exercise your brain, too.

The keys to our nervous system are gray and white matter.”

Hermundur Sigmundsson, Professor, Department of Psychology, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU)

Roughly speaking, gray matter consists of nerve cells – or neurons – and dendrites, while white matter provides contacts between cells (myelinated axons) and contributes to the speed of transmission and distribution of signals.

Three factors contribute to good brain health

A recent magazine article Brain Sciences brings together much of what we know from previous research in the field of brain health. The researchers went to great lengths to be thorough in their theoretical perspective paper and provided 101 references to articles on how to keep our gray and white matter in shape.

“Three factors stand out if you want to keep your brain at its best,” says Sigmundsson.

These factors are:

  1. Physical exercises.
  2. Being social.
  3. Having strong interests. Learn new things and don’t be deterred by new challenges.

1. Movement

This is probably the biggest challenge for many of us. Your body becomes lazy if you sit too much on your stomach. Unfortunately, the same goes for the brain.

“An active lifestyle helps to develop the central nervous system and to fight brain aging,” according to Sigmundsson and his colleagues.

So it’s important not to get stuck in your chair. This requires effort and there is no way out. If you have a sedentary job, go to school or after work, you need to be active, including physically.

2. Relationships

Some of us are happier alone or with a few people, and we know that “hell is other people” – to loosely translate the writer-philosopher Jean Paul Sartre’s phrase. (Although his version was definitely somewhat more involved.) But in this regard, you have to hatch yourself.

“Relationships with other people and interactions with them contribute to a number of complex biological factors that can prevent the brain from slowing down,” says Sigmundsson.

Being with other people, either through conversation or physical contact, supports good brain function.

3. Passion

This last point may have something to do with your personality, but if you’ve read this far, chances are good that you already have the necessary grounding and are probably willing to learn.

“Passion, or having a strong interest in something, can be the decisive, driving factor that drives us to learn new things. Over time, this affects the development and maintenance of our neural networks,” says Sigmundsson.

Stay curious. Don’t give up and just let everything go the same way all the time. You’re never too old to do something you’ve never done before. Maybe now is the time to learn to play a new musical instrument.

Use it or lose it

Sigmundsson collaborated with master’s student Benjamin H. Dybendal and associate professor Simone Grassini at the University of Stavanger on the comprehensive paper.

Their research thus presents a similar picture for the brain as for the body. You have to exercise your brain so it doesn’t break. “Use it or lose it,” as the saying goes.

“Brain development is closely related to lifestyle. Exercise, relationships and passion help develop and maintain the basic structures of our brain as we age,” says Sigmundsson.

These three factors thus provide some of the keys to maintaining a good quality of life – and hopefully – to aging well.


Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Journal reference:

Hermundur Sigmundsson, Benjamin H Dybendal and Simone Grassini. Movement, relationship and passion in physiological and cognitive aging of the brain. Brain Sciences. DOI: 10.3390/brainsci12091122

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