There’s a Lot to Gain from a Healthy Brain

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Healthy You: Activity, Minds, Bodies, Habits

There’s a lot to gain from a healthy brain

Keep your brain engaged - Healthy You 2022


You can pick someone’s brain. Rack your brain. Wrap your brain around something, or even be the brains behind a big idea. What you cannot do, however, is deny the impact our brains have on our lives. We have so much to gain when we keep them healthy.  


From before birth until we die, our brains control how we function, think, feel and act. Although brain development goes through many predictable stages, our brain’s journey is as unique as we are. Brain development is influenced by what we inherit genetically and the interactions we encounter in our environment. Brains also change and adapt as a result of experience. Brain connections that are used more grow stronger and more permanent. Connections that are used less fade away through a normal process called pruning. This video from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University explains how that works.


Even if your brain has experienced trauma or neglect, you can take positive steps to retain and improve your brain health. There are also resources to help if you or someone you love has or may have a disability or disorder that affects the brain. Let’s empower more Alaskans to have healthier brains throughout life by learning more about brain development and sharing with others how to care for our brains.


Brain basics throughout life 


Pregnancy is a normal human experience that in most cases proceeds routinely. Positive steps such as quitting smoking and drinking alcohol, reducing exposure to toxins (if possible), and eating healthy food as soon as you know you are pregnant (or, even better, beforehand, so that these are habits) can help both you and your baby maximize brain health. 


Maintaining regular pediatric appointments helps ensure your baby is meeting developmental milestones or receiving any needed support. See your doctor as well and report if you are having any symptoms of postpartum depression. You are not alone, and treatment is available. If you are expecting or a new mom and need help, the Maternal Child Health Hotline can provide support. The hotline is accessible by phone or text at 1-833-9-HELP4MOMS (1-833-943-5746) in English and Spanish.


Another great resource that is not just for moms is Careline Alaska. Call anytime, toll-free, 1-877-266-4357 (HELP) or text 4help to 839863.


Early childhood

Toddler and preschool children are said to be “sponges” learning about their world. This ability to process new information makes quality preschool education and a stimulating, secure home environment especially important during early childhood.  


A proven technique that grows the prefrontal cortex of a child’s brain is something called “serve-and-return.” Most parents do this naturally. This is a positive, back-and-forth interaction when a child communicates with you. You may enjoy seeing an example of this in action in this video featuring Dr. Phil Fisher from the University of Oregon.


Note especially how it is possible to grow the prefrontal cortex by using this technique even later in life with children who did not have quality interactions when younger. There is always hope. 



Much growth happens to brains during the elementary school years regarding the ability to learn academically. Additionally, children are also discovering how to play and move through their environments more independently, including in sports and other outdoor activities. This can increase their risks for head injuries, including concussions. Even mild concussions can cause headaches, sleep problems, irritability or sadness, and difficulty concentrating and remembering. Reduce the chances for brain injuries by requiring your child to wear a helmet while riding a bike, ATV or snow machine, and while participating in activities such as football and skateboarding. 


What’s more, puberty is starting younger than in the past. This has impacts on our children’s bodies and minds. If you have a young child, you may want to get informed about it earlier than you thought necessary. This may also be the time when you or a teacher may identify the possibility that your child has a different way of learning, called a neurodivergence, or is exhibiting signs of mental health issues. Yes, kids can be depressed. Help is available and is most effective when sought early. This webpage from the National Alliance on Mental Illness has helpful information on how to recognize mental health issues in kids and teens, and how you can find help. 


Show you care - Healthy You 2022


Teens/young adults

Teen brains grow at a phenomenal rate and then “prune” themselves based on what is used. The last part of the brain to mature (and not for many years yet) is the frontal lobe, which controls judgment and risk-taking. With control over these areas not yet fully developed, it is particularly important that teens have adult mentors to help them with judgment calls. Teens and young adults also benefit from positive risk-taking opportunities such as learning new sports, activities, or hobbies and taking on leadership roles at their place of volunteering or employment.  


Teens are particularly sensitive to substance misuse, which can dramatically affect their still-developing brains and interfere with their ability to attend school as well as learn and retain new information.  Substance misuse can also lead to additional risky behavior. To help prevent substance misuse, it is important to have ongoing conversations with your children, including throughout the teen years, about the dangers of drinking alcohol and using other drugs. For tips on how to start the conversation, visit the Talk. They Hear You. campaign from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.


Kick it up - Healthy You 2022



We know it is important throughout life to develop and maintain good eating, sleeping, and exercise habits and to not misuse substances or consume tobacco products. By not taking care of physical health, we may increase our risks for obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stroke, cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease and other dementias, and other brain disorders. The good news? The brain possesses an ability called neuroplasticity, which means new neuron pathways can sometimes be created when we break old habits and replace them with healthier choices such as taking a walk each day or quitting smoking. In addition to slowing or stopping damage, it may even reverse some.



Menopause, when menstruation ends for biological women, affects the brain as hormonal levels experience dramatic changes. Many women feel a “brain fog” during the years leading up to their last menstrual cycle. They may also experience increased anxiety and mood swings. This is all completely normal, but that does not mean you need to just live with it. Healthy food, nutrition, and sleep can help. There are a wide range of other solutions a knowledgeable professional can offer. There is no stigma to admitting you are experiencing these symptoms and getting the help you need. Life after menopause offers new freedoms and it serves you best to enter your next stage as healthy, happy, and heard as you can. Learn more about menopause from the National Institute on Aging/National Institutes of Health.



Many elders experience short-term memory loss and a slower ability to process new information. Ask them a story about years ago, however, and settle in because they will often love telling it in vivid detail. By sharing stories that have life lessons or that pass on culturally-important knowledge, they can feel connected and worthy in their communities. By keeping their brains actively engaged with puzzles, hobbies, and exercise, they can slow down the effects of aging.  



An Active Mind - Healthy You 2022


Fun fact? Seniors often retain an ability to play a musical instrument, plus a study in Germany showed that one of the best things seniors can do for their brain health (as well as overall physical and mental health) is to dance. No wonder so many senior homes and community centers feature dancing! If you have been feeling socially isolated (which can increase the risk for dementias about 50%, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2020), maybe it’s time to find a dance class?



Developing dementia is not inevitable, even if it seems to run in your family. According to the CDC, dementia is not a normal part of aging. Healthy choices you make throughout your life can make a difference as you age and may help you avoid developing dementia. You can reduce your risk of dementia by eating a healthy, balanced diet, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, reducing alcohol intake, stopping smoking, keeping your blood pressure at a healthy level, and preventing head injuries. 


How to keep your brain healthy 

Shift to more shut eye - Healthy You 2022


Here are some basics about brain health as well as actions we may be able to take today to make improvements: 


Eat well

A healthy, balanced diet with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean and plant-based proteins, and healthy fats supports and protects your brain.


Get enough sleep

During sleep, our bodies repair and regenerate. Our brains need this time to be healthy. Find out how much sleep you and those you love need, and try to schedule your lives to accommodate this. It is a necessity. 


Exercise daily

Exercise is kind of a miracle drug. It boosts your metabolism; improves your physical fitness; helps you sleep better; reduces stress and anxiety; can connect you with community and deepen your relationships; and makes you feel better by releasing endorphins and dopamine, which is a hormone that promotes positive feelings. 


Reduce stress

Stress forces our brains to operate in a lower-functioning survival mode. Ongoing stress takes a toll on our brain’s overall health and can have long-term consequences. If common recommendations like meditation, yoga, deep breathing, taking a walk or bike ride, praying, or being outside in nature are not helping you reduce you stress, you may want to consider seeking advice from a behavioral health specialist. 


Get Grounded - Healthy You 2022


Protect your head

Even a little head bump could linger and impact your quality of life. Many head injuries can be avoided by taking precautions and wearing protective gear. Wear a helmet when doing sports or operating equipment when recommended. Turn on nightlights when walking around a dark house. Add gates on stairs and grab bars in bathrooms if you or someone you love is at risk of falling. Be especially careful on uneven ground or ice, and wear your seatbelt when in a motor vehicle.


Alaska has some of the highest rates of traumatic brain injury in the nation, and much of it is preventable. See the Brain Injury Association of Alaska’s website for statistics, programs and other resources, or visit the DHSS injury prevention website for more ways to prevent traumatic brain injuries.


Common causes of brain injury: falls, assaults, ATV/snowmachines, and motor vehicles


Get professional help, if needed

If you suspect you or someone you love, at any age, has a brain disorder or is not functioning normally, do not hesitate to seek a professional evaluation. Many brain conditions can be improved with early intervention and support. If you are a caregiver of someone with a brain disorder, be sure to look out for your own mental health.


Share the load - Healthy You 2022


Putting our heads together 

Are you feeling all brainy now? How about we close with a brainteaser – or, rather, 101 of them, recently published in Parade magazine. Why not challenge your friends or family members to join you? Spend a little time together, have a laugh or two, improve your memory and put your brain’s neuroplasticity to work. Let’s keep putting our heads together for ways to increase brain health in our families and communities. 


Follow us on social media on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We share lots of tips and resources. If you are comfortable doing so, feel free to share your stories as well. Plus, view our How I Thrive series of videos below, which showcase Alaskans finding a wide variety of ways to move forward during these challenging times. Join us next month as we kick off the third quarter of Healthy You in 2022, which focuses on nutrition and sleep. Did someone say snacks and naps? Healthy food and adequate shut-eye involves much more, but we can certainly wrap our heads around that, too!  


How I Thrive video series

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