Your Brain: Use It or Lose It
One thing we know for certain is that as we age, we undergo gradual yet drastic changes. One of those changes is that we are gifted with maturity and wisdom. At the same time, our skin becomes wrinkled, and our brain health deteriorates. The good news is there are ways to protect our brain health, but we must start now.
Our brain controls every aspect of our bodies, including our thoughts, memory, emotions, motor skills, vision, breathing, and temperature. For humans, the most intelligent creation, God says in the Quran, “Indeed, We have dignified the children of Adam, carried them on land and sea, granted them good and lawful provisions, and privileged them far above many of Our creatures” (Quran 17:70).
The most valuable gifts we possess, which elevate us over other creations, are our brains. We must protect these precious gifts and continually seek to enhance their health. In an article from the Mayo Clinic Health System, Donn Dexter, MD, a neurologist in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, lists a few practical ways to protect our brain:
I know we keep seeing this advice at the top of any list of how to maintain our health, but it’s there because it’s paramount. Exercising is NOT optional. Regular physical activity benefits the brain by preventing a decline in mental function and lowering the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Increased blood flow to the brain during exercise counters some of the natural reduction in brain connections that occur as we age. Aim for moderate aerobic activity that increases your heart rate several days each week.
Dexter and many other health professionals around the globe recommend following a Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes plant-based foods, whole grains, fish, and healthy fats such as olive oil. Studies show that the omega fatty acids found in extra-virgin olive oil and other healthy fats are crucial for proper cell function, increased mental focus, and slowing cognitive decline in older adults.
Ward off depression and stress by looking for opportunities to connect with loved ones and friends. Research links isolation to brain atrophy, so remaining socially active strengthens your brain. Hearing loss is one of those inevitable side effects of aging, and untreated hearing loss increases social isolation and loneliness, thus increasing the chance of cognitive impairment. Get your hearing checked, and don’t be embarrassed to use a hearing aid.
Research shows that not getting enough sleep is linked to slower thinking and a higher risk for dementia. Some theories suggest that sleep helps clear abnormal proteins in the brain and consolidates memories, which boosts overall memory and brain health. Once in bed, complete a series of slow, deep breaths. This simple manipulation of your breath reduces stress in your nervous system and prepares your brain for sleep.
From Hollywood fiction, we’ve seen how a single pill can transform an ordinary person into an extraordinary high-performing individual. Is this a reality for you? Nootropics, also known as neuroenhancement drugs, are pills, supplements, and other substances designed to improve cognitive functioning in healthy individuals by boosting their brain power. As with most “cure-all” drugs, limitations and side effects inevitably raise the question: are nootropics worth the risk?
According to Markham Heid, a freelance writer for Time magazine, “the idea that a pill can supersize human intelligence is decidedly science fiction.” Heid summarizes the study “Effect of Nutrients, Dietary Supplements, and Vitamins on Cognition: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials” by Forbes et al., which found no convincing evidence that various nutrients and dietary supplements result in improved cognitive performance. While “plausible mechanisms” link these to better brain function, “supplements cannot replicate the complexity of natural food and provide all its potential benefits,” adds Heid.
In other words, although some promising prescription drugs and over-the-counter supplements may have performance-related effects on the brain, they are a poor substitute for food itself. You may enjoy a short-term brain boost, but you could also end up harming your brain and other aspects of your health in the long run. Furthermore, many of these supplements include omega-3s, creatine, ginseng, and flavonoids—well known to improve brain health and function—but consuming fatty fish, berries, herbal teas, and other foods high in these nutrients is arguably a safer option.
The human brain is a three-pound organ that is the most complex part of the human body. It is physically composed of frontal lobes, parietal lobes, temporal lobes, and occipital lobes.
The brain sends and receives different chemical and electrical signals throughout the body. For example, some signals make us feel happy, while others make us feel stressed. The central nervous system relies on billions of nerve cells to relay messages through the spine and across the body’s massive network of nerves.
The brain is not a muscle. However, it is similar to a muscle in that we will retain its power only if we use it frequently. Think of how you must hit the gym several times a week if you want a healthy body. If you want a healthy brain, you must regularly and consistently engage in problem-solving tasks and complex learning.
Remember: the less physically or mentally active you are, the more strength and agility you will lose. In other words: use it or lose it. Although we cannot control some neurological disorders, we must do what we can today to prolong our brain health by opting for intelligent choices. Poor choices now lead to poor outcomes in advanced age, such as reducing our level of independence, prematurely removing ourselves from the community and workforce, and adding to our burden of care.
Training our brains to maintain and even increase effectiveness is possible. We should avoid excessive screen time that limits brain stimulation and opt for a brain workout of reading, picking up a fun (and active) hobby, or completing a difficult puzzle. It is encouraging to know that through our actions and choices, we have the ability to positively impact our overall health and performance. Whether it’s keeping up with technology, learning a new skill, or traveling to a new place, our brains thrive on tackling fresh adventures. Make your goal to keep discovering and challenging yourself as you get older.
At the beginning and the end, we must seek God’s mercy and guidance, for with Him lies all control. “Allah grants wisdom to whoever He wills. And whoever is granted wisdom is certainly blessed with a great privilege. But none will be mindful [of this] except people of reason” (Quran 2:269).
Asma Jarad is a Chicago-based writer, editor, and communications strategist. Her works are published across multiple forums, ranging from health and food trends to Islam in America.