A common reason long-time smokers give for not quitting is that the damage to their health has already been done and that giving up cigarettes now won’t make a difference. Of course that’s not true. Plenty of research shows that your cardiovascular health starts to improve on the same day you kick the habit.
But that logic permeates many medical issues, such as preserving brain health and reversing years of unhealthy behaviors. Because many people accept as true the idea that memory loss and fuzzy thinking are inevitable components of aging, they ignore the opportunity to improve brain function.
Psychologist Ana-Maria Vranceanu, PhD, founder and director of the Integrated Brain Health Clinic and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, wants you to know that maintaining mental fit-ness is a lifelong task.
“We can improve our brain health at any age by increasing our capacity for neurogenesis or the production of new neurons,” she says.
Neurons are cells that transmit and receive nerve impulses. There is some debate in scientific circles about the degree to which an older brain can make new neurons. Studies in recent years have presented findings that neurogenesis continues throughout a person’s life, while other research suggests that neurogenesis stops in infancy. The latter theory was widely accepted until the 1990s, when scientists discov-ered evidence of neurogenesis in the adult brain’s hippocampus—a part of the brain that plays a key role in memory.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Keep a daily food journal for a month and examine your food and beverage intake. Look for ways you can swap unhealthy saturated fats for healthier unsaturated fats, for example, and cut down on things like added sugars, alcohol, and other high-calorie, nutrient-poor items.
Exercise for at least 150 minutes a week, but try to build some physical activity into your schedule every day. Your exercise regimen should include aerobic, muscle-building, balance, and flexibility exercises.
Quit smoking. Talk with your doctor about products and therapies that can help, rather than trying to quit by yourself.
Keep up to date with health screenings, annual physicals, and blood work. Work with your doctor to control your weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels.
Dr. Vranceanu and others believe that neurogenesis is an ongoing process that can be aided by a healthy lifestyle. Likewise, many researchers believe that unhealthy behaviors, such as a sedentary lifestyle and a high-calorie diet loaded with fat and sugar, may inhibit neuron production.
“The health of the brain is a result of all the positive and negative impacts we’ve encoun-tered over the course of our lives,” she explains. “The negative aspects include poor health, physical injury like a concussion, and simply following a poor diet and not exercising. So it’s never too early to start to heal the brain, and it’s never too late. Some damage can be repaired if you start to take care of your brain through lifestyle changes, no matter the age.”
If the brain’s neuron factory never really shuts down, then it’s worth it to adopt behaviors that will be most conducive for robust brain health. Dr. Vranceanu acknowledges that bad habits are hard to break, and turning healthy lifestyle behaviors into new habits is not easy.
“We encourage our patients to use adaptive thinking techniques,” she says. “Statements like, ‘it’s too late,’ are not adaptive because they don’t help us to become more motivated to make changes. In fact, they fall under what we would call ‘all-or-nothing thinking,’ which can make us feel discouraged and stop us from leading the healthiest life possible.”
For example, you may want to exercise for an hour a day, but you have days in which your workouts are more like 30 minutes each. That’s okay. Dr Vranceanu and most health experts would tell you that 30 minutes of physical activity is far better than zero minutes. On days when you can exercise longer, then do so.
“Wherever individual patients are with their lifestyle behaviors, we encourage them to begin making small changes,” Dr. Vranceanu says. “As they get some success under their belts, the small changes can snowball into bigger and bigger accomplishments. It is never too late to start taking care of your brain.”