Taking steps towards better brain health


From diet and exercise and sleep, there are many factors in boosting brain health.

Like millions of people around the world, you and I probably jotted down our New Year’s resolutions. After more than a month into the New Year, hopefully, we can keep going strong or pick up where we left off. Apparently, tracking your goals is key to staying on top of them.

Now, if diet and exercise are on your list, you have ticked off two important aspects for better brain health, says Dr Suhail Al Rukn, Consultant Neurologist at Rashid Hospital. “The link between brain health and exercise is getting clearer with each passing day as more research throws light on the magic of movement.”

The latest is a Mayo Clinic study that provides new evidence of an association between cardiorespiratory fitness and brain health, particularly in grey matter and total brain volume — regions of the brain involved with cognitive decline and ageing.

The study involved 2,013 adults from Germany who were examined in phases from 1997 through 2012. Cardiorespiratory fitness was measured using peak oxygen uptake and other standards. The results suggested that cardiorespiratory exercise may contribute to improved brain health and decelerate a decline in grey matter.

“Previous studies have also discussed the benefits of cardiovascular exercise and brain health,” says Dr Al Rukn. “Cardiovascular exercise such as running, cycling and brisk walking is not only good for your body but can also slow cognitive changes in the brain. This research provides more insight into the positive benefits of cardiovascular exercise on brain health; however, exercise should also include weight training and stretching as well. The key is to make exercise a part of your daily routine. In my opinion, a balanced and consistent exercise plan is important for health and well-being.”

Limiting sugar

Dr Al Rukn explains that in terms of diet, consuming minimum sugar is also good for brain health. “Excessive salt can cause hypertension and excessive sugar consumption isn’t good for your overall health as well as brain health either. My advice for 2020 in terms of nutrition would be to keep sugar and excessive salt at bay. This of course includes limiting the intake of processed and fast foods that are very high in salt and desserts that make blood sugar levels spike. Moderation and balance is a better approach and is sustainable as well.”

Dr Al Rukn says sleep deprivation is another area of concern and has a direct impact on brain health. “Try to clock-in a minimum of seven hours of sleep per night, even if you can do with fewer hours of sleep, in the long run lack of sleep is detrimental to brain health. Getting your sleep routine right and winding down an hour before your sleep time is important for your overall health.”

Keeping mentally active

Dr Al Rukn adds that other important ways of maintaining brain health are learning a new language, learning new skills that one is passionate about, and maintaining a close network of friends and family, as research has shown the social connection is good for overall happiness.

According to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which tracked 724 Boston men for more than 75 years and then began following more than 2,000 of their offspring and wives, the message is that good relationships keep us happier and healthier.

Dr Robert Waldinger, a Harvard psychiatrist and psychoanalyst and the current director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, which is probably the longest study on adult life and happiness, said in his TED Talk that the clearest message from the study is that good relationships keep us happier and healthier. “Social connections are good for us. People who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community are happier. They are physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected.”


He also said that loneliness declines brain function. He did emphasise on the value of the good relationships to keep the brain happy and the body healthy. “The second big lesson we learnt (through the study) is that it is quality of your close relationships that matter. High-conflict marriages, for example, without much affection, turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced and living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective. Good relationships protect your brains.”

Dr Al Rukn believes that in today’s social media age, it is important to have a network of few friends and family members to ensure the connections are meaningful and bring positively to life. “I feel that constant browsing on social media is not productive for the mind and there are several emerging studies in this field. Mindful use of technology with limiting time zones for social media can be productive if technology is used with discipline.

“Some other practices that are good for brain health are spending time outdoors in nature; having a purpose in life that can change and flow according to the phases in your life; gratitude; mindfulness; avoiding an extremely busy life; and trying to single-task instead of multitask and of course meditation.”

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