Dr Sarah McKay is an Oxford University-educated neuroscientist, science writer and founder of The Neuroscience Academy. She writes a popular science-based blog Your Brain Health: http://yourbrainhealth.com.au/
A good night’s sleep every night should be a priority, not a luxury. Sleep is overlooked, underappreciated, and the number one, fundamental bedrock of good health. Sleep deprivation (even a few hours a night) impacts cognition (thinking), mood, memory and learning and leads to chronic disease. Sleep is essential for consolidating memories and for draining waste products from the brain. Not only do we under-sleep, we under-consume natural light during the day and over-consume artificial light at night leaving our circadian rhythms, hormones and immune systems dysregulated. Short afternoon naps consolidate memory, spark creativity and smooth your rough emotional edges (no guru, course or app required!).
How much sleep is recommended: Matthew Walker – author of ‘Why We Sleep’ – says a minimum of 7 hours per night.
The best exercise for your brain is physical exercise. Daily exercise increases blood flow to the brain. Exercise triggers the release of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes neuronal growth and survival, reduces inflammation, and supports the formation of long-term memories. Exercise reduces the risk of dementia (and other chronic lifestyle diseases), acts as an anti-depressant, and regulates mood. Our brains evolved to support bodies that move through, make sense of, and respond to the natural world around us. A simple walk outdoors gets you away from digital devices and into nature. You’ll do your best thinking when walking.
How much movement is recommended: If you loathe exercise try 20 minutes gentle walking 4 to 5 times a week.
A healthy brain requires a healthy well-nourished body. Research points towards a Mediterranean-based diet of mostly plants (vegetables, fruit and legumes), fish, some meat, olive oil and nuts as optimal nourishment for brain health. Wine and coffee in moderation (yes, really!) prevent cognitive decline, memory loss and protect against dementia (Plus, the little pleasures in life are important too!).
Add a piece of fruit or a vegetable to each meal. Fruit and veg provide your brain with the essential nutrition it needs. Vitamin pills are no substitute for a poor diet.
Find your moment of calm. Not all stress is bad, but chronic stress, especially life events that are out of our control, can change the wiring of our brains. Too much cortisol (a stress hormone) prevents the birth of new neurons and causes the hippocampus (the brain structure involved in learning and memory) to shrink, reducing your powers of learning and memory. To de-stress find your place or moment of calm. Do something pleasurable — meditate, practice mindfulness, walk, or nap. The most pleasure is to be found in doing something you’re reasonably good at and that also poses some degree of challenge.
And laugh … a lot!
We are born as social animals and have a fundamental need for human warmth and connection. Having supportive friends, family and social connections helps you live longer, happier and healthier. Socialising reduces the harmful effects of stress and requires many complex cognitive functions such as thinking, feeling, sensing, reasoning and intuition. Loneliness and social isolation have comparable impacts on health and survival as smoking.
Find your ‘tribe’. Connecting with like-minded people gives us a comforting sense of belonging.
Keep your brain mentally active. Adults who regularly challenge their minds and stay mentally active throughout life have healthier brains and are less likely to develop dementia. It’s thought ongoing education and mentally challenging work build cognitive reserve (the capacity to cope better and keep working properly if any brain cells are damaged or die). Choose mentally challenging activities that you can practice regularly, that are reasonably complex and that take you out of your cognitive comfort zone. Try activities that combine mental, social and physical challenges.
With technology impacting everything, we also need to challenge ourselves to UNLEARN what we think we know.
Seek out your purpose in life. Find your true north, your passion, your bliss, your inner voice, your wisdom, your calling. Whatever you call it. Research has found that people who score high on life purpose live longer, healthier and more fulfilling lives. Do extraordinary things! Set fantastic, passionate goals and work like crazy to achieve them. Find your place of flow—that sweet spot where you so intensely and completely focus on the present moment and the task at hand and that time passes effortlessly. Some say flow is the point of life.
Identify your purpose by taking one of Steph Vermeulen’s ‘Personal Intelligence’ seminars. Living your purpose makes work rewarding.