Neuroscientist: Invest in this ‘supercharged 401(k) for your brain' to keep it healthy and sharp

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The brain is one of the most important organs in our bodies, which means keeping it healthy and sharp is just as crucial as the focus on our overall health. Fortunately, prioritizing your brain health doesn't have to be difficult.

MasterClass recently partnered with neuroscientists and psychiatrists to create classes focused on improving brain health. The classes highlight that even in older age, the brain's function can be enhanced.

"Brains never complete their wiring," said Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, psychologist and neuroscientist, during "The Science of Aging Smarter" class. "Your brain's ability to change the wiring of neurons throughout your life" is called brain plasticity, the class notes.

In adulthood, it can be harder and take more time to achieve brain plasticity, but not impossible, said Barrett, who is also the chief science officer for the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior at the Massachusetts General Hospital.

"It's because of this amazing function of positive brain plasticity that we are able to shift our brain health, improving the anatomy, physiology and function of the brain," said Dr. Wendy Suzuki, neuroscientist and dean of the New York University College of Arts and Science.

Think of it like a "supercharged 401(k) for your brain," Suzuki said. "Everything you do over your lifetime can push us all into better long-term brain health."

The 401(k) for your brain to keep it healthy and sharp

These are a few suggestions for improving your brain health and staying mentally sharp, from the experts featured in the MasterClass series.

1. Try new and challenging things

"Any time you encounter something you didn't anticipate or you didn't predict, and it's possibly useful in the future, your brain is gonna attempt to learn it," Barrett said. "And learning is plasticity."

In order to get the most benefit for brain health, your experiences have to be new and challenging, the experts emphasized. "Challenges that are hard enough that they might be slightly unpleasant," Barrett said.

Barrett and Suzuki suggested engaging in activities like:

  • Reading new books
  • Learning a new language
  • Meeting people for the first time
  • Acting in a play
  • Traveling to places you haven't been before
  • Watching a new movie
  • Playing fun memory games like trying to memorize your grocery list

The goal should be "optimal novelty, optimal difficulty, optimal challenge," Barrett said. "All of these things are metabolically challenging now, but they're like an investment in a healthier, stronger you."

2. Engage in physical activity

"Physical activity is so powerful for our brain," Suzuki said. It "stimulates the growth of brand new brain cells in your hippocampus as an adult," a process which is called neurogenesis, she added.

This process works best when you work out regularly, Suzuki said.

"10 minutes of walking has been shown to significantly decrease your depression and anxiety levels," she said. "Forms of activity that require strategy will work your prefrontal cortex more," including sports like soccer and basketball.

Even a little bit of exercise is helpful, she noted. "Every single drop of sweat counts for your brain."

3. Connect with others

The amount of social interactions that you have, even with people you don't have close relationships with, can help predict how long you'll live, Suzuki said. "Laughing and pleasurable social interactions decrease your stress levels."

When you do things like take a walk or eat a healthy dinner, it's even better for your brain if you do them alongside people whose company you enjoy.

You can also experience a release of the feel-good hormone, dopamine, through acts of compassion and community service.

4. 'Be the architect of your emotions'

Practicing emotional intelligence by training your brain to create emotions more flexibly greatly benefits your brain health.

"Whether you deal with distress as sadness or anger is very different than if you make sense of that distress as you've had a really tough week and you just need a little bit of self care," Barrett said.

While no emotion is inherently good or bad, flexibility can help you channel your emotions in a way that is productive.

It can also help to tap into techniques like what Suzuki calls "joy conditioning." Think back on positive memories from your past and sit with the emotions or attempt to reenact them.

All in all, the 401(k) for your brain can be summarized in this quote from Suzuki: "Move your body, sleep the optimum amount for your brain, eat a Mediterranean diet, have strong social connections [and] as much love and laughter in your life as you can."

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