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Home / Research / We can change our brain and its ability to cope with disease with simple lifestyle choices.

From an article by Yen Ying Lim, Research Fellow, Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health: Our life expectancy has increased dramatically over the past several decades, with advances in medical research, nutrition and health care seeing us live well into our 80s. But this longer life expectancy has also come at a cost, as the longer we live, the more likely we are to develop neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia.

Despite the lack of treatments for these diseases, there’s now a growing body of research to suggest there are a range of lifestyle changes we can adopt to help enhance our brain function. And even prevent brain disease. …

…Hypnosis is one of the oldest forms of psychotherapy. It is typically used as an adjunct treatment for pain, and a range of anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress. Recent studies show that during hypnosis, changes in brain activity are detected in brain regions that govern attention and emotional control.

One small study (18 patients) suggested hypnosis substantially improved the quality of life of dementia patients after, with patients experiencing higher levels of concentration and motivation. But this result is very preliminary, and requires independent replication with larger numbers of patients.

It’s likely hypnosis plays an important role in reducing stress and anxiety, which may in turn improve focus, attention and wellbeing in general.

So what works?

The challenge with studying the effects of lifestyle changes on brain health, particularly over a long period of time, is the large degree of overlap across all lifestyle factors. For example, engaging in physical activity will be related to better sleep and less stress – which also improve our memory and thinking function.

Similarly, better sleep is related to improved mood. It may make people feel more motivated to exercise, which may also lead to better memory and thinking function.

The extent to which we can truly determine the contribution of each lifestyle factor (sleep, physical activity, diet, social engagement) to our brain health remains limited.

But a wide range of lifestyle factors that are highly modifiable such as physical inactivity, obesity, chronic stress and high blood pressure can have far-reaching effects on our brain health. After all, it is mid-life high blood pressure, obesity and physical inactivity that can increase our risk of dementia in later life.

Recently, a large study of 21,000 American adults aged over 65 suggested the prevalence of dementia fell significantly from 11.6% to 8.8% (nearly a 25% reduction) over 12 years (from 2000 to 2012). The researchers suggested this decrease in prevalence may be due to increases in education and better control of risk factors for high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

This provides some hope that we can, to a certain extent, take charge of our brain health through engagement in a wide range of beneficial activities that seek to improve mental function, improve heart health, or reduce stress.

This is part of a series on Changing the Brain, about what’s happening in our brain in various mental states and how we can change it for the better and worse.

Read the full article.