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The Brain: Feeding, Care, and Maintenance

by Ben Goldberg

 I could while away the hours conferrin' with the flowers, consulting with the rain;

and my head I'd be a scratchin' while my thoughts are busy hatchin' if I only had a brain.

 – The Scarecrow’s song in The Wizard of Oz.

...The brain is the source of all the qualities that define our humanity.

 – National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke


The human brain, that complex and still somewhat mysterious organ, functions like a command and control center in the body. This three-pound organ, with its 86 billion brain cells, sends and receives information that controls every important function in the body, and it plays a major role in the bodily responses to this constant circular flow of data. It controls our thinking, feeling, memory, learning, movement, speech, and more. And the brain carries out these functions with such ease and sophistication that we are likely to take this miraculous organ for granted—at least until accident, illness, or aging demands that we pay attention to it.

It used to be “common knowledge” that problems with cognitive functioning (i.e., learning, remembering, thinking, attention, reasoning, decision-making, problem-solving, personality, behavior inhibition, and movement) commenced “when we got old”—perhaps in the 60s into the 90s or later—and that there was not much we could do about that functional deterioration. But like many other pieces of “common knowledge,” science has disproved both of these assumptions. Cognitive functioning begins to decline, if slightly, as early as our 30s, depending on factors such as genetic inheritance, lifestyle, and general health. And we have learned much about what the brain needs in order to function well, regardless of our age. The brain has neuroplasticity, the ability to adapt structure and function, for better or worse, at any age and in response to our experience.

Yes, the good news is that there is much we can do to maintain brain health and cognitive functioning well into later life and elderhood. As one of my favorite bumper stickers says, "Everything is connected.” That is, the elements and habits of a healthy lifestyle, beginning with the following, are pretty much what constitutes the path for nurturing the brain and maintaining good cognitive functioning for as long as possible as we age:

  • Regular exercise. Sit less. Move more.
  • A healthful diet. The Mediterranean Diet, for example, with its emphasis on vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, whole grains and beans, and fish, might be a good source to explore.
  • Support for the gastrointestinal tract, “the gut,” sometimes called “the second brain.” The brain-gut relationship appears to be critical for the body’s immune response.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight. This can be a challenge at any age, but it’s an important element.
  • Regular restorative rest and sleep.
  • Managing cholesterol, blood pressure, stress, and systemic inflammation.
  • Maintaining positive social connections.
  • Being a lifelong learner. Learn a language, an instrument, a new skill, or hobby. Do new stuff.
  • Playing. Laughing. If and whenever you can.

You needn’t be a brainiac to nurture your brain (and consult with the rain) at any age.

Ben Goldberg gardens (though not always well) and eats (though not always wisely) in Albany. 

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