Keys to maintaining good brain health

Your brain is great. About 100 billion nerve cells work together to keep you agile and quick in your thinking.

But like the rest of the body, your brain may not be as energetic when you get a little older. Maybe you find yourself having to write things down, or forgetting appointments, or unable to fully follow the conversation or action on TV without straining.

Fortunately, it is possible to train your brain as well.

The keys to our nervous system are the gray and white matter.”

Hermundur Sigmundsson, Professor, Department of Psychology, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU)

Roughly speaking, gray matter consists of nerve cells – or neurons – and dendrites, while white matter provides the contacts between cells (myelinated axons) and contributes to the speed of transmission and propagation of signals.

Three factors contribute to good brain health

Recent Journal Article Brain Sciences brings together much of what we know from previous research on brain health. The researchers went to great lengths to be thorough in their theoretical perspective paper and offer 101 references to articles on how to keep our gray and white matter in shape.

“Three factors stand out if you want to keep your brain in its best shape,” says Sigmundsson.

These factors are:

  1. Physical exercises.
  2. Being social.
  3. Having strong interests. Learn new things and don’t shy away from new challenges.

1. Motion

This is perhaps the biggest challenge for many of us. Your body becomes lazy if you sit too much on your butt. Unfortunately, the same goes for the brain.

“An active lifestyle helps develop the central nervous system and counteract brain aging,” according to Sigmundsson and colleagues.

That’s why it’s important not to get stuck in your chair. It takes effort and there is no way around it. If you have a sedentary job, go to school or when you are done with work, you need to get active, including physically.

2. Relationships

Some of us are happiest alone or with just a few people, and we know that “hell is other people” – to loosely translate the phrase of the writer-philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. (Though his version was undoubtedly a bit more involved.) But you have to tighten up on that.

“Relationships with and interactions with other people contribute to a number of complex biological factors that can prevent the brain from slowing down,” says Sigmundsson.

Being with other people, for example through conversation or physical contact, supports good brain function.

3. Passion

This last point may have something to do with your personality, but if you’ve read this far, there’s a good chance you already have the necessary grounding and are probably willing to learn.

“Passion or strong interest in something can be the decisive, driving factor that makes us learn new things. Over time, this affects the development and maintenance of our neural networks,” says Sigmundsson.

Stay curious. Don’t give up and just let everything go the same way all the time. You’re never too old to do something you’ve never done before. Maybe now is the time to learn to play a new musical instrument.

Use it or lose it

Sigmundsson collaborated with master’s student Benjamin H. Diebendahl and associate professor Simone Grassini at the University of Stavanger on the comprehensive paper.

Therefore, their research presents a similar picture for the brain and body. You have to train your brain so it doesn’t fall apart. “Use it or lose it” as they say.

“Brain development is closely related to lifestyle. “Exercise, relationships and passion help develop and maintain the basic structures of our brain as we age,” says Sigmundsson.

Thus, these three factors offer some of the keys to maintaining a good quality of life—and hopefully—aging well.


Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Journal reference:

Hermundur Sigmundsson, Benjamin H Diebendahl and Simon Grassini. Movement, connection and passion in the physiological and cognitive aging of the brain. Brain Sciences. DOI: 10.3390/brainsci12091122

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