• We have more control over our brain health – through lifestyle choices – than was previously thought

  • Professor James Goodwin offers four ways you can take care of your brain throughout your life

Whenever I ask people about brain health, the default answer usually revolves around being able to remember well, to solve problems and to make good decisions. Indeed, all these are part of what we call ‘executive’ or ‘higher function'. According to Yale scientists we make some 35,000 decisions a day. And the majority of these decisions are in the avoidance of ‘bad’ experiences and the pursuit of ‘good’ ones – the cardinal principle of feeling good.  

The brain is designed to seek and maintain wellbeing, in which emotional regulation is paramount. Both positive and negative emotions are there for a purpose, honed over millions of years of evolution. It is achieving their balance which is the key. Without that balance, executive function suffers and social relationships go out of the window – it is a truly high stakes game. 

It's never too early; it's never too late

It's easy to be resigned to the idea that as we age our brains wind down, memory declines and reactions slow. Now exciting new research shows that it is never too late to improve our brain health – a concept that goes way beyond the absence of disease. 

This revolutionary concept is underpinned by a startling discovery in 2019. Contrary to the received wisdom that we are born with a set number of brain cells, we make new brain cells across the whole of our life, including our ninth decade. 

In a process called neurogenesis, the brain can rejuvenate itself! Further, only about 25% of the lifelong change in our executive function is determined by DNA. It turns out we are not the prisoner of our genes. Over three quarters of the lifelong change in thinking skills is due to our lifestyle and environment. If we know what these epigenetic factors are, we can slow down or even reverse the ageing of the brain. But there is no silver bullet – no quick-fix brain game or trendy diet to boost brain health. It is the cumulative effect of the little things we do every day that makes the difference. So, what are these little things? And which are the most important?

4 ingredients for a healthy brain

1. Positivity

In the classic paper, “Does Living in California Make You Happy?”, Daniel Kahneman revealed the two indispensable elements for personal wellbeing – feeling good and functioning well. Feeling good consists of how happy we are in the moment, or as Kahneman would say, being ‘happy IN our life’ - a function of our ‘experiencing self’. By contrast, functioning well is all about our global life satisfaction, being ‘happy WITH our life’, a function of our ‘remembering self’. To a large extent, feeling good depends on how well we learn to balance our negative and positive emotions. 

The great news is that this balanced state of wellbeing is the secret ingredient of brain powerOne milestone study amply demonstrates this. In a 2008 study at Cambridge University, in more than 11,000 adults aged over 50, all those in the top 20 percent of wellbeing scores were clearly superior in their cognitive skills. The science goes further. A positive emotional balance has been found to improve our working memory, critical to the actions and decisions in our everyday life. And if that were not enough, repetitive negative thinking is associated with the proteins of neurodegeneration – amyloid and tau – in the brain and further with cognitive decline itself.

Managing individual stress levels is an integral part of maintaining a sense of wellbeing. But will stress management benefit brain health? There are some surprising findings. One of them – and a controversial message to some – is the increasing body of evidence that low to moderate consumption of alcohol reduces levels of inflammation in the brain and opens the glymphatic system, draining away problematic proteins such as beta amyloid (associated with Alzheimer’s disease) as well as relieving stress levels. But we have to know when to stop. Heavy drinking confers damage on brain function, such as impaired memory over many years. 

Yoga is also known for its stress relieving qualities. But it’s likely that if you practice yoga your brain structure and function will improve with time. Yoga improves cognitive performance, attention and memory – and does so by the release of the transmitter substance GABA, improving the balance of negative and positive emotions.

And then there’s art. Whether by viewing art or by making art, either generates within us a sense of visceral awe and inspiration which psychologists call ‘embedded cognition’. Today we know these deep feelings are due to changes in the brain's neurochemistry – a science called neuroaesthetics. 

2. Get up! Go out! Smell the roses!

I can think of nothing worse for brain health than an inactive, indolent lifestyle which over many years will serve only to blunt the brain. Daily exercise will not only maintain physical and cardiovascular fitness and relieve stress but it will stimulate neurogenesis, notably in the hippocampus, a centre of learning and memory. 

As you are exercising, you are de-stressing and re-building the brain! Some evidence has shown exercise can even reverse brain ageing in this important region. But it doesn’t end there. Further evidence has shown that a sedentary lifestyle, that is over 8-10 hours of sitting down per day, is sufficient to undermine the benefits of physical exercise. A sobering message. It behoves us all to ‘declare war on the chair’ and to reduce the hours of continuous sitting.

3. Be social

It’s beyond doubt that social isolation and being lonely are both injurious to physical and mental health. 

Loneliness carries the same risk to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or drinking a bottle of gin per day. The stress of loneliness increases the secretion of cortisol which suppresses neurogenesis and is inflammatory to the brain. If you are chronically lonely, it’s most likely the structure of your brain will change, with reduced volumes of grey matter and less connections between the neurons. For brain health the premium is on reducing isolation and alleviating loneliness – any form of social contact will improve memory formation and recall. 

One particularly beneficial activity is dancing, which not only relieves stress but improves mood, cognitive function and memory, and is known to benefit the brain’s white matter. It is especially protective against poor cognitive outcomes in later life and neurodegenerative disease.

4. Look(ing) ahead!

The big take-away from science of the last 25 years is that we have a huge amount of control over our brain health through how we live – ordering our lives to make them more enjoyable, less stressful more productive and healthier. In ‘well doing’, not only will we feel better, we will think better too – and reduce the future risks to our brain health.

Professor James Goodwin PhD is the author of Supercharge Your Brain: How to Maintain a Healthy Brain Throughout Your Life

Further reading

The neuroscience of emotions

Why is change painful for the brain?

The neuroscience of fear: what's happening in the brain and how to manage it

10 ways talking therapy improves brain function