We are increasingly aware of the importance of brain health, which affects our physical well-being and daily functions. Having the capacity to manage ourselves well and take care of our loved ones has significant meaning to us.
Our understanding of the brain and other parts of the nervous system, and how they control our complex behaviours, has been the subject of intensive research for the past four to five decades, but has only gathered substantial momentum in the recent one to two decades.
Based on research studies conducted around the world and in Singapore, we now know how to modify and control our lifestyle habits to promote our brain health. While there are a few non-modifiable factors that put us at a higher risk of developing dementia, such as ageing, there are many enjoyable and meaningful things that we can do in our daily lives to reduce this risk.
These can be grouped into three areas: lifestyle, diet, and mindfulness.
Studies have shown that physical activity contributes to brain health by maintaining a metabolic level that boosts brain health.
This aligns with what we know of centenarians (people aged 100 and above), who keep themselves physically and mentally active throughout their lives, and whom we can learn from. At the same time, each of us is unique, so it is good to adjust our activity levels and choose activities with our unique physical makeup in mind.
Group exercises, such as group dance activities, incorporate social interaction elements which, on top of exercise, boost brain health. We can also consider activities that can be done either in a group or alone, such as jogging, yoga, and walking in nature.
There is no fixed amount of time recommended to spend on each activity, as this is subjective and dependent on individual’s interest.
It is recommended to have a minimum of seven hours’ restful sleep daily to repair and recharge.
Refrain from smoking
Cigarette smoke contains many harmful substances that disrupt the normal functions of the brain in the long term. These substances compromise the integrity of blood vessels, which can lead to chronic diseases, including hypertension, which increase the risk of vascular dementia.
A sufficient intake of fluids (eight glasses or about two litres per day, based on the recommendation from HealthHub Singapore) is vital for the brain’s cellular processes to function properly. In addition, drinking plain water is better for hydration than many other beverages.
Communication with family members and friends, and the level of social interaction and support that builds, maintains a level of cognitive stimulation in the brain.
The Health Promotion Board of Singapore has been promoting the importance of a balanced diet: a diet low in sugar, salt and saturated fats, and that has adequate fluids. With regards to a diet for brain health, an increasing amount of evidence has pointed towards the benefits of a Mediterranean diet and other kinds of dietary habits that support brain health. We do not need to drastically change our diet to resemble a Mediterranean one, or to modify it to abide strictly by other recommendations. Instead, we can adopt and incorporate some of these diets’ components into our own cuisines, like those we have in Singapore, based on the scientific evidence supporting their benefits.
- Avoid processed foods and use more fresh ingredients – This does not mean having to buy premium organic ingredients (ingredients free of pesticides, fertilizers and other artificial components). We only need to reduce our intake of canned, processed, and instant ready-to-eat foods (including fast foods) where possible. Instead, get fresh ingredients, and wash and prepare them before cooking. Freshly prepared and cooked foods are certainly more nutritious and beneficial for people of all ages.
- Include wholegrains – Carbohydrates are more beneficial for us in their unprocessed and natural forms. They encourage our body’s metabolic processes to work optimally. Though cuisines that people in Singapore eat sometimes feature refined rice as a staple, it is possible to make small adjustments for better health by assigning some days in the week on which we consume unprocessed carbohydrates such as brown rice, quinoa, and oats.
- Include pulses in meals at least twice a week – Protein is broken down into amino acid components to help repair the cells in our body. Though meat is a rich source of protein in many diets, there are also healthier alternatives to getting adequate protein in your diet. Pulses or legumes such as beans, peas and lentils are examples of healthy protein sources. In Asian cuisines, tofu, which is made from soybeans, is an example of a protein-rich ingredient that can be easily paired with many other foods for a delicious meal.
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables every day – Anti-oxidants help to slow down some of the mechanisms of the ageing process. Fruits like blueberries and vegetables like beetroot are rich sources of anti-oxidants. We can eat salads with healthy dressing – made with ingredients that are not processed, and that include healthy fats (see below) – and include fresh fruits and vegetables in every meal.
- Healthy fats for healthy brain function – A major component of the human brain comprises fatty tissue that plays a vital role in the proper transmission of micro-electrical signals. The brain is one of the organs in our body that has the highest percentage of fats. Healthy fats can be derived by consuming fish oils (e.g. from salmon), unprocessed nuts and seeds, cooking oils and salad dressing from olive, rapeseed and sunflower oils.
The key take-home message is that we should increase our intake of freshly prepared and unprocessed foods. A Mediterranean type of diet rich in foods which benefit the heart, blood vessels and gut will improve brain health because these body systems work closely together.
Conventional medicine recognises the power of the connection between mind and body. Studies have found that people heal better if they have good emotional and mental health. The basic concept of mindfulness involves spending at least five to ten minutes daily to practise breathing control and meditation to achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm state. In scientific terms, this can have a positive effect on biofeedback to restore the balance of chemical signals within our body.
Brain Bank singapore
Brain Bank Singapore is a national brain donation opt-in programme which was establish in November 2019 to help in the better understanding of various conditions affecting the human brain such as dementia, other neurodegenerative and psychiatric disorders, through vital biomedical research. We are partnered by the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, National Neuroscience Institute, National Healthcare Group and NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine.