Looking After Your Brain
The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain involved in reasoning and impulse control, emotional drive, motivation and planning. The hippocampus is involved in memory and learning. These are the areas that tend to be affected by cognitive decline and may eventually lead to Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s is considered to be a disease associated with old age, however changes in brain function can begin decades earlier. With an ageing employee population, there is an increasing risk of mild cognitive impairment affecting those in the workplace, demonstrating subtle symptoms. Employees may struggle with tasks they used to complete without difficulty. Changes in day-to-day memory, planning capability, punctuality, language and attention span may be early symptoms of mild cognitive impairment.
Lifestyle factors can affect the way the brain functions, including dietary choices, stress, sleep disturbance and shift work, sedentary lifestyle, alcohol, certain medications and head trauma. There are several simple lifestyle changes and healthy behaviours that can help keep your brain firing on all cylinders and in optimal health throughout your working life.
What can you do to support your brain health?
Feed Your Brain
Insulin resistance, one of the precursors to Type 2 diabetes, has been shown to contribute to cognitive decline and worsening of memory and learning capability. Sugary foods and highly processed carbohydrates will cause glucose levels to rise rapidly and more insulin is required to deal with this. Over time the body loses sensitivity to this regulation and problems arise. A lack of glucose to fuel the brain can lead to reduced concentration, fatigue and brain-fog.
In diabetes patients, elevated blood sugar leads to inflammation in the body, and this inflammation may damage brain cells and increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease. This has led some researchers to dub Alzheimer’s as ‘Type 3 diabetes’. When a diabetic person's blood sugar reaches a significantly high or low level, their body sends very immediate signals of the problem which results in energy crashes, behaviour changes, confusion, and seizures.
In contrast, with Alzheimer's disease, rather than acute signs of a problem, the brain's function and structure decline gradually over time.
What you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain, and therefore, your cognitive performance. So, the same diet and lifestyle advice applies to the brain as the body. Some dietary suggestions for better brain function are:
- Cut back on sugar. Choose your carbs carefully, favouring complex carbs like whole grains and vegetables over simple carbs like white bread, pasta, rice or sugary foods like cakes, biscuits and breakfast cereals.
- Don’t skip meals. Our brains run best on glucose and need a consistent and steady supply of fuel. Skipping meals, long gaps between eating and irregular eating patterns can affect the way the brain is fuelled and therefore healthy function.
- Cut out fizzy and sugary drinks. Water is still the best way to rehydrate. Sugary drinks contain ‘empty calories’ with almost no nutritional value and are very high in sugar. Swapping to low-calorie or zero-calorie fizzy drinks is not a healthy alternative either. Artificial sweeteners contain chemicals that can interfere with neurotransmitter function and therefore impair brain function.
- Reduce coffee intake. Caffeine is a stimulant and can give the brain short-term boost, but over the course of the day, high intakes of caffeine can decrease the brain’s sensitivity to natural messengers which have a detrimental effect on energy and concentration.
- Eat food for the brain. Eating a varied diet consisting of whole foods including plenty of fruit and vegetables will help you get the nutrients that support brain health. Getting enough of the ‘good’ fats found in oily fish, nuts and seeds is essential, since these fats are highly concentrated in the structure of the brain, helping the brain to communicate information throughout the body and adapt to new inputs.
The brain needs a steady flow of blood to supply oxygen. Research shows that physical exercise can make your brain work better, because it raises the heart rate and gets the blood pumping to deliver more oxygen to the brain. Working the muscles in the body can positively improve brain function by improving concentration, boosting memory and over time can even alter the structure of the brain. Experiments in learning environments have found that performing two 20-minute bouts of moderate intensity exercise a day significantly improved attention span. Some physical recommendations for better brain function are:
- Sit up straight, sitting hunched over has been shown to restrict blood flow to the brain.
- Get up and move regularly, just 10 minutes at a time can be beneficial.
- Go for a walk after lunch, or get off the train a stop early to walk to or from work.
- Use the stairs instead of taking the lift.
- Put a reminder in your diary or on your phone to stand up and stretch a few times a day.
- Find a regular physical activity you enjoy doing, as you are more likely to make it a habit if you enjoy it.
Use it, don’t lose it
The brain thrives on stimulation.
It is a common misconception that as we age, we inevitably get more forgetful and our brains will simply work less well. But as we age, the brain cannot regenerate cells as readily as other organs in the body, so over time we lose neurons that are not replaced. Despite this, the brain is clever in terms of learning new ‘routes’ for processing information, which can keep functioning optimal. In a healthy brain, when neurons are stimulated, more communication branches are created, a process known as plasticity. Repeated exposure to a task or activity reinforces the connections, making an activity quicker and easier to perform.
Stimulating the brain’s neurons is essential for optimal function. Performing activities that activate the ‘thinking’ part of the brain will help build new communication pathways and reinforce existing ones.
- Do regular crossword or sudoku-style puzzles.
- Learn a new skill or language.
- Get creative.
- Play games designed to solve problems.
Interestingly, the brain also works best when focused on one task at a time. Contrary to popular myth, the brain isn’t good at multi-tasking. What it is really doing is repeatedly changing focus and continually flitting between tasks. Consider setting aside chunks of time to devote to a task before moving on to the next (and resist the urge to check your inbox every 10 minutes!)
Considerations for Rail Industry Employers
- Individuals who have rotating shifts, work overnight, or have long hours are at higher risk of a decline in their cognitive abilities.
- Less attention to detail, poorer memory, decline in problem solving skills and forgetting meetings may be early symptoms of a problem.
- Cognitive impairment may be due to fatigue or stress as well as the early signs of a more serious problem.
- It will be beneficial for employers to work to employees’ strengths as well as engaging them in new activities or encouraging them to learn new skills.
The brain’s capacity to process information and perform tasks is astounding, but it needs our proactive approach to keep it healthy. Simple lifestyle and behaviour changes can be extremely beneficial to the brain and overall health in the long run.
When it comes to looking after our brains, prevention is definitely better than cure.