The brain is the central organ of the body. It is the “central station” that organizes and controls everything that happens in the body, from sensory experiences to decision making. As the main control system, our brains regulate our energy, productivity, emotions, performance, creativity, social relationships and above all, health, performance and overall well-being. Our brains work nonstop — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for our entire lives.
Old paradigms depicted brain health as predetermined by our innate biology and genetic make-up. This meant that those of us born with “good” biology and genes would be able to enjoy good brain health, while those of us less fortunate would be destined to suffer from brain disease. Luckily, advances in research over the past decade have shown that although we are all born with a particular genetic background, genes are not our destiny. Instead, our life experiences and our lifestyle choices can change both how our genes are expressed and how our brain can function.
The term “neuroplasticity” encapsulates the notion that our brains are malleable, not just when we are young, but across all stages of life. Everything that we think, feel, and do as we interact with our environment – from the things we eat, to our level of activity, and interactions with others – are actively changing our brains. We now know that things that are within our control – such as a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, prioritizing sleep, managing stress well, being connected within supportive social networks – can form new brain connections or repair brain networks that may have been damaged through injury. Furthermore, the changes that we make to our own lifestyles and our environments may not only affect our own health, but may impact the brain health of our offspring.
In sum, genetic variation is only one part of the picture. Our behaviors and environment can offset any risk we may experience due to genetic factors. Think of genes as the clay – and our thoughts, feelings, behaviors and environment as the factors that mold it.
And the amazing thing about our brain is that it continues to grow and change throughout our lifetime. We can’t start too early or too late. The ability to grow and strengthen connections in our brains allows us to stay sharp and engaged no matter the age.