Most people know how important it is to take care of their hearts, and may also take steps to avoid other chronic conditions like diabetes and arthritis, but people may not think much about their brain health until they get older, when brain health may already be significantly compromised. Two-thirds of the 6.2 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s disease are women, and changes in the brain—specifically, the toxic build-up of proteins that cause the plaques and tangles associated with Alzheimer’s disease—can happen a decade or more before a diagnosis. You can intervene now, and your brain may already be calling out for your help, not just to ward off future dementia but to resolve issues compromising your brain function today.
The brain has ways of alerting you when things aren’t working as well as they could, but to get those messages requires paying attention to your body’s signals. If you are experiencing any of these five signs that your brain health needs attention, then you have the opportunity to make some changes, to get your brain in good working order, and to keep it that way well into old age. Signs your brain needs attention are the following 5—read on, and to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You’ve Already Had COVID.
Your brain has a self-cleaning mechanism called the glymphatic system, and every night during the deep stage of sleep, your brain flushes out the waste products that have accumulated in the brain during the day, including the normal metabolic by-products from neuronal activity. When you don’t sleep enough, this cleansing process can be disrupted, causing toxic build-up in the brain. Since deep sleep typically occurs during the first half of the night, staying up late could limit your time in deep sleep, compromising your brain’s ability to self-clean and detoxify. Sleep issues can also be a sign of sleep apnea (which can be caused by excess weight), stress, depression, hormonal changes, even heart disease. If you aren’t sleeping, it’s important to investigate and find out why and whether you can take measures to improve your sleep, like having a consistent sleep routine, sleeping in a cool dark room, going to bed a little earlier, and not eating within three or four hours of bedtime.
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Some mood issues, like clinical depression, are obvious and require medical intervention, but people often ignore less obvious mood changes that could be messages from your brain. Frequent anxiety, irritability, sadness, impatience, or bursts of anger can be early signs of dementia, stroke, hypertension, or even diabetes, but they also might simply be signs that you aren’t giving your brain the nutrition it needs to stay balanced and healthy. Deficiencies in B vitamins (especially folate and B12) and zinc can cause mood issues, including depression and irritability, as well as cognitive decline, and too much processed food also correlates with increased risk of depression, mild cognitive impairment, and ADHD. Switching to more whole foods and a Mediterranean diet eating pattern has been shown to improve mood issues, and the polyphenols from vegetables and fruits, along with the omega-3 fatty acids from seafood, are manna from heaven for the brain. There is also quite a bit of evidence that exercising can relieve mood problems, including depression, anxiety, attention issues, fatigue, and social interaction.
I also want to mention that people often blame mood changes on hormones, and hormonal changes, like with PMS and perimenopause, can cause mood fluctuations. However, these are temporary fluctuations, not disorders. The brain actually changes during menopause, for example, but then stabilizes and doesn’t necessarily decline. However, severe mood swings with PMS can be a sign of abnormal brain activity and can impact quality of life significantly. Aerobic exercise (aka cardio) is one of the best ways to manage the mood swings that can happen during PMS, and can help your brain balance itself.
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Not being able to concentrate is extremely frustrating, especially when you have work to do! It can also be a sign that you are overly stressed, aren’t sleeping enough, aren’t drinking enough water, aren’t eating well, or aren’t exercising—basically, lifestyle habits that you already know aren’t good for you can all impact your ability to stay focused. Concentration problems can also be a sign of depression, or they might simply be the result of a world in which attention is constantly fragmented. If you are having problems concentrating, the best thing you can do for yourself, and for your brain, is clean up your lifestyle. Avoid junk food, exercise, sleep more, and try to reduce your stress. If that doesn’t help, you can train your brain to get better at concentrating. Minimize distractions like internet surfing and email while working, and practice concentrating for short periods of time, followed by breaks to refresh your brain, until you relearn concentration skills. Start with 10 minutes focused on one thing without letting yourself get distracted, and build up your tolerance. It’s a workout for your brain.
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If you’ve lost your passion and motivation, you could be suffering from a brain exhaustion issue called burnout. Burnout is a product of chronic stress characterized by a loss of interest in work, extreme fatigue, cynicism, loss of confidence, anger, hostility, and a feeling ineffective or useless. Chronic stress is hard on the brain and the constant release of stress hormones like cortisol can exhaust the brain’s reserves, if you never give yourself a chance to recover from stress. Burnout is common in those who work in health care or who are caretakers, but it can happen to anyone who neglects self-care The best solution to burnout is to take some time off and fill yourself up again. Let your brain recover.
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Humans are meant to be together, and social withdrawal is a sign that something is wrong. It can signal depression, anxiety, or other serious mental health issues, or it can just be a sign of stress and overwhelm. If you feel like you’ve withdrawn socially—something quite common in an age of lockdowns and social distancing—it may be time to take a deep breath and reach out again, even if it’s just a regular video call with a close friend or a coffee date once a week. Many people have gotten used to isolation in the last two years but it isn’t good for the brain. Research has shown that people who have more social engagement have more gray matter in their brains and are less susceptible to dementia and other brain dysfunction, especially for women.
To live a vibrant life, you need a vibrant brain, so I encourage everyone to watch out for any signs that brain health isn’t what it could be, and to intervene swiftly and aggressively with good nutrition, exercise, stress management, and social engagement. Your brain health is worth fighting for, not just in the future but now. And to protect your life and the lives of others, don’t visit any of these 35 Places You’re Most Likely to Catch COVID.