Adopt These 10 Habits for Better Brain Health

Living a healthy lifestyle is key to preventing chronic illness and conditions like diabetes and heart disease. And now, new research has found that living a brain-healthy lifestyle may reduce your risk for Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and other cognitive decline.

Here’s what you can do now to reduce your risk for brain-degenerative diseases:

  1. Turn down your headphones. With ear buds at full volume, you can permanently damage your hearing in just 30 minutes. Your volume should be no louder than 60% of your device’s maximum. Try not to listen for more than a couple of hours at a time.
  1. Get natural sunlight every day. Open the blinds. Get out of your office and head outside. Natural sunlight provides natural vitamin D, a needed vitamin for your brain and body health.
  1. Move more! A 40-year Swedish study separated midlife women exercisers into low, moderate and high fitness levels and found that women at the lowest fitness level were 45% less likely to develop dementia, while women in the top fitness level were 88% less likely. Exercise reduces chronic inflammation and increases the release of a protein that’s good for brain cells. Plus, it improves your overall health, reducing cardiovascular dysfunction, your risk for diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which are all bad for your brain.
  1. Watch what you eat. Overeating and eating food high in salt, sugar and highly processed foods is very bad for your brain, not to mention your overall body health. A healthy diet produces more brain tissue volume, more gray matter, a larger hippocampus (which controls memory) and lessens the risk of developing dementia, according to a study published in 2018 by researchers at the Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands.
  2. Keep mentally fit. Lifelong learning is fundamental to improved brain health, higher levels of cognitive activity and staving off Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. So, read, take an online course, learn a new language or a new musical instrument. Learning builds cognitive reserves — the capacity of your brain to function optimally – at any age.
  3. Be socially active. Scientists now know that people with few social contacts and who feel lonely or isolated have a 26% greater chance of dementia or mild cognitive decline. The connection between loneliness and dementia is still unclear, but it may have to do with depression or lack of stimulation. Talk, visit and interact with others. Your brain depends on it.
  4. Make a good night’s sleep a priority. Experts recommend seven to eight hours of sleep per night. It’s vital to brain and physical health.
  5. Find a way to reduce stress. High levels of stress are linked to memory problems and smaller brain volume. Practice whatever works best for you – breathing exercises, taking a walk, playing with a pet, listening to music, knitting, reading a novel, tinkering in the garage, or anything else you find relaxing.
  6. Stop smoking. Smoking can shrink your brain, make your memory worse, and makes you twice as likely to get dementia, including Alzheimer’s. It also causes heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and high blood pressure.
  7. Get healthier. Start now. Illnesses most related to brain health include Type 2 diabetes and hypertension. People with diabetes have a twice the risk of developing vascular dementia, and a 73% increase risk of any dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Address depression and mental health, too.

“Taking care of your overall physical and mental health adds up to a healthier you,” says Leanne O’Neil. “Each component plays a critical role in living a brain-healthy lifestyle. Make sure you see your doctor regularly, get annual screenings and manage any chronic illnesses you have.”

Your Brain… on Yoga

Yoga in all its forms has proven its benefits across multiple generations and continents. Interestingly, modern science is now confirming its usefulness for improved mental and physical health and even brain fitness.

Indeed, yoga has been shown to support healthy brain function and stave off neurological decline. That’s particularly good news for those with limited mobility or early onset dementia, as some form of yoga (such as chair yoga, water yoga, yoga for the blind, and gentle yoga) is accessible for a wide majority of people, regardless of age or fitness.

Here are yoga’s effects on the human brain:

  • Recent studies demonstrate a positive effect on the structure and/or function of the hippocampus, amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and cingulate cortex.
  • Psychologically, regular practice has also been shown to lower stress, reduce body image dissatisfaction and anxiety.
  • Brain scans of regular yoga practitioners show they have thicker cortexes and greater gray matter volume and density in several brain regions, including the frontal, limbic, temporal, occipital and cerebellar regions. This research seems to confirm that yoga appears to negate the otherwise normal decline in total gray matter volume that occurs with age.

Interestingly, these beneficial brain changes appear to occur fairly rapidly when yoga is done at least once (one hour session) per week.

Other ways yoga has proven benefits for your brain

  • Twenty minutes of yoga weekly improves speed and accuracy of mental processing to a greater degree than 20 minutes of aerobic exercise (jogging).
  • Yoga helps improve a variety of mental health problems, including psychiatric disorders like anxiety, ADHD, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and schizophrenia, in part by increasing brain chemicals like gamma amino-butyric acid (GABA). Without GABA, nerve cells fire frequently and easily, triggering anxiety disorders, seizures and conditions such as addiction.
  • Yoga also boosts serotonin, and some studies suggest yoga can have a similar effect to antidepressants.
  • Yoga can help improve teenagers’ emotional resilience and ability to manage anger. This is especially helpful as teen frontal brain lobes (the seat of language and reason) are still being formed, leaving them to overly rely on their amygdala (the seat of emotions).

“It appears that the unique combination of physical movement and deep breath work of yoga offers these healthy brain benefits,” sums up Leanne O’Neil, owner of INDY Neurofeedback.

The evidence is clear. Regardless of your age or physical agility, consider finding a yoga class that you can do on a regular basis.

What is going on in our emotional brain when we reach for a word and can’t quite get it to come to mind? 

We have all experienced that maddening “tip-of-the-tongue” state where we are desperately trying to recall a name or phrase but can’t quite get it to come to mind. “Brain researchers wonder about what is happening when this occurs, too,” says INDY Neurofeedback owner Leanne O’Neil, “and what they are finding is fascinating.”

“In fact a group of psycholinguist researchers decided to study this common phenomena. A new study published in the  Memory & Cognition journal has found that when people experience this state, the phenomenon can exert a surprising influence on completely unrelated behavior – risk-taking.”

Here’s what they found:  Interestingly, when study subjects are unable to recall a word but feel like they are on the verge of remembering it, they are more likely to report that that word they are searching for is positive, or that the forgotten name belongs to an ethical person.

Why might this be? Researchers speculate that compared to a complete inability to recall a word, having it just out of mind’s reach might provide an encouraging feeling that you have relevant knowledge, even if you can’t quite bring it to mind. So, those individuals may infer from those feelings that the word itself has positive qualities.

How does this lead to risk-taking? If subjects have a positive association with an idea, could that bias influence other decisions completely unrelated to the word retrieval behavior?

To investigate this possibility, researchers at Colorado State University conducted a series of studies on how the so-called Tip-of-the-Tongue Phenomenon related to risk-taking decisions: specifically, whether or not they chose to gamble.

  • To test this, the team asked 19 students to answer 80 general knowledge questions.
  • If they couldn’t answer, the participants were asked whether they were experiencing a Tip-of-the-Tongue If so, after each question, they rated on a scale of 0 to 10 whether they felt inclined to gamble on the result of a coin-toss.
  • Of the 44 questions asked, students experienced the Tip-of-the-Tongue phenomenon on 8 of the questions. They rated their willingness to gamble as significantly higher than when they had no inkling of the answer.
  • The study was then replicated in a second study of 180 participants. These participants also showed a greater inclination to gamble after Tip-of-the-Tongue moments, but less so after a 10 second delay before the gambling question.
  • In a final study, participants were asked to make an actual (rather than hypothetical) decision to gamble on a coin toss. The participants were more overwhelmingly willing to gamble after Tip-of-the-Tongue moments rather than when they couldn’t answer the question.

What does this mean about emotions related to how we retrieve information? Researchers think that Tip-of-the-Tongue moments are experienced as “a partial form of retrieval success”, which is internalized as “more positive than no success at all.”

“In other words,” summarizes O’Neil, “Temporary positive experiences seem to affect our immediate future behavior in ways that we might not realize, providing very interesting food for thought.”

How to tame inflammation – the cause of so many health issues

Inflammation is a contributing factor in many serious health conditions that affect both body and your brain.

Of course, not all inflammation is bad. Healthy bodies react to injuries with acute inflammation to speed circulation and bring healing nutrients to the affected site.

But when inflammation becomes chronic, that formerly helpful inflammatory response works against health and well-being. Chronic inflammation is largely due to lifestyle habits that welcome free radicals and the cellular damage they cause.

Here are 5 highly effective ways to control — and begin to reverse — chronic inflammation:

  • Know which foods are inflammation-causing and eliminate them from your diet:
    • Sugar
    • Soda
    • Deli and processed meats
    • Fried and fast foods
    • Omega-6 oils
    • Refined wheat products
  • Add inflammation-taming foods instead:
    • Berries
    • Fatty fish
    • Cruciferous vegetables
    • Whole grains
    • Green tea
  • Consult with your doctor about taking supplements, including:
    • Astaxanthin
    • Curcumin (turmeric)
    • Omega-3 fatty acids
    • Probiotics
  • Make good sleep a priority every night. Allow for 7-9 hours of restorative sleep each night. Turn off electronics, block external lights, and keep your schedule even on weekends.
  • Manage your stress, which floods your bloodstream with chemicals that increase inflammation. Make reducing stress and (often accompanying) negative feelings another top priority. Belly breathing, meditation, and regular exercise work well to help your mind and body release stress.

 

The team at INDY Neurofeedback reminds you that taming inflammation and stress should always be a part of your health routine. When you start eating healthier and dealing actively with stress, your body releases “feel good” chemicals in response to positive thoughts and emotions. That’s why it’s so important to practice techniques that help manage your emotions and stress.

INDY Neurofeedback has well researched tools to help you create a more positive and healthy environment for your brain body connection. What can we help you with?

Too Much Screen Time Slows Brain Development in Preschoolers

The number of tablets, videos, television shows, and smart phone tools marketed toward toddlers and preschoolers has exploded over the last several years, prompting parents to ask, “How safe is screen time for very young children?”

A new study by a clinical researcher at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital (published in JAMA Pediatrics) decided to find a definitive answer. Pediatricians and clinical researchers scanned the brains of children 3 to 5 years old and found that those who watched more than the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended one hour a day (without parental involvement) had lower levels of brain development in key areas related to the development of language, literacy and cognitive skills.

This is important to note because the brain is developing the most rapidly in the first five years of life. That’s when brains are actively engaged in soaking up knowledge and forming strong connections in language, literacy and cognition. Even before screens became portable and ubiquitous, we have long known that parent-baby face to face or heart to heart engagement form the core of the social engagement system from which the child (and later adult) will function in all future relationships.

Specifically, these new studies show that excessive screen viewing is linked to the inability of children to pay attention and think clearly. There is a definite link between excessive screen time and language delay as well as a decrease in parent-child engagement. This is especially important to consider because today’s portable screens follow kids and parents everywhere – to the dinner table, in the car, during playtime with other kids, even to bed.

More troubling, very young kids are now routinely exposed to screen time. About 90% are using screens by age one, according to one study that used MRIs to research the impact of reading to children versus screen use by kids alone. In this testing, MRI results showed that children who used more than the AAP’s recommended one hour per day of screen time without parental interaction, had more disorganized, underdeveloped white matter throughout the brain.

“We know that early experiences shape brain growth, and media is one of these experiences,” says Leanne O’Neil of INDY Neurofeedback. “Heavy media use does not lead directly to brain damage, but rather, it is too passive for brain development and gets in the way of other experiences that could help children reinforce their rapidly growing brain networks.”

Here are AAP screen time guidelines for young children:

  • Babies under 18 months should not be exposed to screen media other than brief video chatting with friends and family. Babies need to interact with caregivers and their environment, so don’t use media as a babysitter.
  • By the time a youngster turns two, they can use some interactive touchscreens, as long as parents watch with them and reteach the content.
  • Children 3 to 5 years old can benefit from well-designed educational TV shows, which can improve a child’s cognitive abilities, help teach words, and positively impact social development. But just like toddlers, preschoolers learn much better from any educational materials when they are co-viewed with their caregiver, interacting about the material.

“The first years of life need to be focused on human interactions that encourage speaking, interacting socially and playing with loving caregivers,” says O’Neil. “This helps young brains develop thinking, problem-solving and other high functioning cognitive and lifelong learning skills.”

Here Are The Worst Foods For Your Brain

Forgetful? Irritable? Brain feeling sluggish and foggy? There is a reason that your brain isn’t functioning as it should, and it’s possible that the reason is related to your food choices.

Here’s what brain researchers want you to know about your food choices – especially with the holiday season upon us.

Artificial trans fats:

  • Found in deep-fried treats, snack crackers, and almost all fast food.
  • Also known as partially hydrogenated oils, these fats were banned by the FDA in 2015 (but food companies were given three years to complete production). That means these foods may still be on shelves and very likely still in products.
  • These fats do a number on your memory. The more trans fatty acids you consume, the poorer you perform on word-recall tests. Even worse, high consumption is also linked to shrinking brain volume, aggression and irritability.
  • How much is okay to eat? None.

Avoid/reduce added sugar:

  • We Americans are addicted to it. You’ll find it in our soda, snacks, candy, and unlikely places too, such as ketchup, salad dressing, soup, nutrition bars, bread, yogurt, granola, and many health foods.
  • According to research, sugar is bad for your memory. A high-sugar diet made it harder for rats to remember where a specific object was located in a place they’d been to before, according to findings published in Brain, Behavior and Immunity.
  • Sugar is also responsible for inflammation – another no-no for brain function. High amounts of sugar can lead to inflammation in humans brains, making the brain less efficient at retrieving and processing information.
  • How much sugar is okay to eat? The American Heart Association says women shouldn’t have more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day, the amount you’d get from one candy bar, ¾ of a can of soda, or a 6-ounce container of low-fat vanilla yogurt. That means most of us go way over this amount, every day.

Avoid/reduce added salt:

  • Like sugar, it’s everywhere – from breads to cheeses, butter to cold cuts, breakfast cereal to fast foods, and added to most restaurant entrees.
  • In a recent study of the activity levels and sodium intake of 1,200 men and women between the ages of 67 and 84, too much sodium plus lower activity levels led to poorer cognitive health. Salt can lead to a narrowing of the blood vessels that transport oxygen and other essential nutrients, which means your brain can’t get the resources it needs to work at its highest levels.
  • How much is okay to eat? The FDA standard guidelines say, No more than 2,300 grams per day for healthy people; 1,500 mg if you’re over 50, African-American, or have high blood pressure.
  • Talk with your doctor about what’s ideal for you.

What about fat? Is it good or bad?

  • The list of the benefit of healthy fat continues to grow. However, a diet that’s too high in total fat may also affect your emotions. According to research in the International Journal of Obesity, mice on a high-fat diet (58 percent of total calories) developed signs of despair and anxiousness.
  • Saturated fat seems to be particularly harmful to the brain, according to the Montreal Diabetes Research Center at the University of Montreal.
  • So how much is okay to eat? Based on a 2,000 calorie a day diet, between 56 and 78 grams of good-for-you mono and polyunsaturated fat per day, such as fish, nuts and avocados. But restrict saturated fat to 16 grams per day, such as three slices of cheddar cheese.

So, say the clinicians at INDY Neurofeedback, since your brain is ultimately responsible for your body’s health and wellbeing, eat with your brain fitness in mind.

If you have a concern about brain function, give us a call. Your first consultation is always free.

High blood pressure and brain health

Yes, high blood pressure and brain health are closely related, especially as we age. Here’s why:

Lesions in the white matter of our brains, often called hyper-intensity lesions, are damaged areas of the brain responsible for transmitting information from one part of the brain to another. Interestingly, these  brain lesions are more common with age.

In fact, ten to twenty percent of 60-year-olds have them, and they’re more present in 70, 80 and 90-year olds, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

As hyper-intensity lesions accumulate in the brain, they can lead to functional changes such as depression, problems with balance, bladder control, and dementia.  Recently, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine’s Calhoun Cardiology Center found that lowering blood pressure may be the key to preventing these lesions. Subjects in the school’s study found that those with lower blood pressure developed 40 percent fewer white matter hyper-intensity lesions than those with higher blood pressure.

In a related study (Circulation journal), adults age 75 and older with hypertension (high blood pressure) who were able to lower their systolic blood pressure to 130 (with or without medication) developed fewer brain lesions than those who lowered their blood pressure to 145.

In addition to brain benefits, the study also found that the group with lower blood pressure had fewer cardiovascular events, including arrhythmias, heart failure and heart attacks.

Some physicians use age as “an excuse” to let higher blood pressure numbers slide. However, in 2017 the American Heart Association (AHA) revised their guidelines and set the generally approved threshold for high systolic blood pressure at 130 for all adults, regardless of age.

Even so, as much as 46 percent of American adults have high blood pressure under the new AHA guidelines.

“That’s a huge percentage,” cautions Leanne O’Neil, owner of INDY Neurofeedback. “My recommendation for brain health is to regularly have your blood pressure checked. Monitor your numbers, and do what you can to keep those numbers moving down, especially if you are overweight or over age 60. Not only will getting more exercise help, but you can also keep your blood pressure trending lower by eating fewer sugars, starches, fatty meats, and sodas, and adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet.” 

Self Compassion — Stress Relief That Lasts

Stress — the feeling of being overwhelmed by your to-do list, social media, politics, multi-tasking, being ever available via your phone, judging yourself harshly… the list goes on… indefinitely.

So, what to do? Next time you’re feeling particularly frazzled, try this new stress hack: Be compassionate to yourself.

Sounds too easy, right? It’s actually harder than you think to be kind to yourself. Turns out that judgy voice in your head is strongest when it’s judging you!

A new study in the Clinical Psychological Science found that practicing self-compassion has great health benefits, including reducing:

  • heart rate
  • blood pressure
  • sweating 
  • anxiety levels

The above symptoms are triggered by the body’s threat response system (adrenaline surges) that chronic stress can cause. Being in a state of constant chronic stress is terrible for your brain, your heart, your digestive system, your ability to keep from getting sick, and your overall wellbeing and longevity.

However, learning to be more self-compassionate appears to put the body in a state of safety and relaxation — which shows up as a slower pulse (heart rate) and slowed breathing. Both can be regulated by sending loving thoughts inward.

Try it for yourself

  • Take a moment to stop what you are doing and close your eyes 
  • Slow down and deepen your breathing 
  • Mentally scan your body from head to toe
  • Bring awareness to and give gratitude for each body part and what it does to keep you healthy and active.

This may be difficult at the start, so give it time. As Leanne O’Neil of INDY Neurofeedback says, “We believe everyone can train themselves to be self-compassionate. Being kind to yourself is like flexing a muscle. The more you practice, the easier it will become.”

Diet soda + 10 years = increased risk of dementia & stroke 

diet soda popDiet soda + 10 years = increased risk of dementia & stroke 

Recently, a large study tracking stroke and dementia risk in diet soda drinkers caught our attention at INDY Neurofeedback.

The health hazards of sugary beverages like regular soda have been known since 2015. But a more recent study shows that the sugar-free soda version is not any healthier. 

Artificially flavored drinks like diet soda seem to be linked to a higher risk of stroke and dementia, according to a new study published in an American Heart Association journal.

This ten year study included one group of 2,888 adults age 45 and older, and a second group with 1,484 adults over age 60. Researchers studied the over-45 group for stroke risk (rare before age 45) and the over-60 group for dementia (rare before age 60).  

Researchers analyzed the number of artificially flavored drinks each person consumed. They then checked the group’s health over the next 10 years and found:

  • Those who drank at least one diet soda per day were about three-times more likely to experience an ischemic stroke (blockage of blood vessels to brain tissue), compared with those who avoided the beverages. 
  • Just one daily diet soda was linked to higher rates of dementia as well, although other risk factors like obesity or diabetes also could be to blame.
  • Researchers note that it isn’t proven that diet sodas caused these conditions. But it is true that those who developed stroke or dementia had consumed more soda than those who had not. (Other factors, such as obesity – also tied to diet soda drinking – could also be a factor).

More research is needed to determine exactly how—or how much—artificially sweetened beverages affect your vascular system, the network of vessels that carries blood to your brain. 

“What we do know,” says Leanne O’Neil of INDY Neurofeedback, “is that when vessels harden or develop sticky plaque build-up, it raises your risk of chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes, as well as dementia and stroke.”

“So the best thing you can do for your brain health is to maintain a healthy lifestyle to help protect against these illnesses. What’s good for your health and heart is generally also good for your brain.” 

Learn to Quiet Your Brain — and Live Longer

Those of us at INDY Neurofeedback were fascinated with a new study recently published in the medical journal Nature, which linked quieter brains with longevity. We were fascinated because it confirmed what we have been seeing in our neurofeedback clinic for years.

It makes sense that a less active or calmer brain would use less body energy. That’s the theory behind activities such as mindfulness and meditation – which have been around for thousands of years. It also supports the HeartMath HRV (heart rate variability) program all clients are taught in conjunction with our neurofeedback training. 

In the Nature study, researchers from Harvard Medical School reported that a calm brain with less neural activity could lead to a longer life. 

Here’s what the Harvard study showed:

  • The study analyzed donated brain tissue from people who died (aged from 60 to over 100). 
  • A protein that suppresses neural activity — called REST — was found to be associated with neural activity and mortality.
  • Researchers noticed that the longest-lived people had lower levels of REST as well as genes related to neural activity.
  • The study showed that daily periods of slowed activity spent in meditation, uni-tasking, being in quiet environments, or sleeping, were just as important for life-long brain health and longevity as more well-known maxims such as staying active, maintaining a healthy weight, and exercise. 

“Even though our brains weigh only about one-seventieth of our total weight, brains consume nearly one third of all the energy in our body,” explains Leanne O’Neil, owner of INDY Neurofeedback. “So it is incredibly important that we learn how to quiet our brains to give them a chance to rest – especially when all around us, we’re encouraged to multi-task and stay engaged.”

“Learning how to quiet our overly-busy, multi-tasking brains is vital for our mental health. And now, we know it is also connected to longevity.”

Here is what INDY Neurofeedback tells our clients:

  • Begin to tune into and listen to your body. Find out where you are holding in tension, and acknowledge those areas. When you acknowledge your body, you are more open to what is really going on for you.
  • Learn to recognize when you are feeling overwhelmed.
  • Practice mindfulness and deep breathing.
  • Try regular meditating. It’s a good way to stay tuned to your internal mental state.
  • Learn to stop reacting and talking, and be present. Really listen to what others are communicating.
  • Be brutally honest with yourself about having clear boundaries. Know when you need to take a break from work, children, problem-solving, or being with others. 
  • Spend time alone, doing what you enjoy.

Those of us here at INDY Neurofeedback have noticed that by incorporating both HRV and neurofeedback techniques, individuals can learn to gain control over various over or under active parts of our brains, providing the tools for healthier more optimal brain function.