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Holistic approaches to keep your brain young

You already know that stress can take a toll on your body. Did you know it can also damage your brain?

That's one reason that I am a strong proponent of meditation and other stress management practices for people of all ages. As an internal medicine physician who practices integrative primary care, I believe that taking a more holistic approach to health is especially helpful for people as they age.

Stress and your brain
One brain structure that is very sensitive to stress is the hippocampus, which is the memory center of the brain. The body produces the hormone cortisol in response to stress, and over time a high level of cortisol can damage the hippocampus. Stress is definitely a factor in memory loss, and there's good evidence that meditation, in its various forms, is beneficial and correlates with a decreased risk of Alzheimer's.

But stress isn't the only threat to the aging brain. Inflammation, the kind triggered by lifestyle and health habits like a poor diet, being inactive, chronic sleep problems and smoking, is associated with many chronic diseases, including Alzheimer's and dementia.

Food choices matter
The typical Western diet is too high in Omega 6 fats and too low in Omega 3 fats. While we need some Omega 6 fats in our diet, most Americans eat too many. These fats, along with sugar and other refined carbohydrates, promote inflammation. Foods with anti-inflammatory properties include colorful fruits and vegetables, certain teas and spices, and foods with Omega 3 fats, like cold-water fish and some nuts.

Staying active can also help counteract inflammation, and regular exercise can make you feel happier. While something as simple as walking every day may be all you need for cardiovascular health, vigorous exercise releases endorphins, which can boost your mood.

The ever-changing brain
Just as physical activity helps you stay strong, mental activity helps you stay sharp. We used to think that brain development occurred until about age 19. But research shows that the brain maintains the ability to reshape itself and create new connections.

My final advice to keeping your brain young? Stay engaged, both mentally and socially: Do crosswords and other cognitive exercises, build and maintain social connections, stay curious and keep learning.


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