Can You Reverse Brain Aging?

Your brain shrinks as you age. But new research suggests you can not only slow the process -- but also reverse it....

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Today’s Health Upgrade

  • Can you reverse brain aging?

  • The stress you cause in your sleep (and how to stop it)

  • The new science of healthy dieting

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Can You Reverse Brain Aging?

You might be aware that your muscles start shrinking as you age — but did you know your brain shrinks, too? Thankfully, there’s something you can do about it.

Research suggests intense exercise can prevent brain atrophy and help you regain brain size and function. 

On average, your brain — much like your muscles — can start losing size in your 30s and 40s unless you focus on keeping what you have. As you get into your 50s and 60s, that process speeds up, and you can lose up to 1 to 2 percent per year of your hippocampus, a part of your brain that plays a key role in memory and process. 

However, research found that high-intensity aerobic exercise can increase your hippocampal volume by 2 percent and offset what you typically see in aging. 

The reason might be something called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). When you perform intense exercise, it increases BDNF, which might act like miracle grow for your brain and support better memory, focus, and mental well-being. 

Intensity is relative to your own fitness level, so using your heart rate is a good way to measure how hard you’re working. To estimate your maximum age-related heart rate, subtract your age from 220. For example, the max heart rate for a 40-year-old is 180 beats per minimum (220 - 40). To add higher-intensity workouts to your routine, aim for at least one or two weekly workouts where your heart rate is at least 70 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate.

The Stress You Cause In Your Sleep (And How To Stop It)

The first rule of sleep: make it a priority. The second rule of sleep: don’t mess with your circadian rhythm. The 24-hour clock determining when you sleep and wake is even more powerful than you think. 

Recent research suggests disrupting your circadian rhythm with artificial light at night can disrupt your metabolism and cardiovascular health and increase stress.

Your circadian rhythm is controlled by the light-dark cycle. When it gets dark, melatonin increases, which triggers a domino effect that helps you rest and allows your body to recover. 

One of the most common tips to improve your sleep is to limit phone time at night. But it’s not just your screen time that’s an issue. Any evening light — especially keeping lights on when you sleep — can disrupt your entire sleep-wake cycle. 

The latest research found that artificial light at night (ALAN) — whether from screens, lights, the TV, or even street light — stresses your body by confusing your circadian system. If it happens once in a while, your body can adjust. But if it happens frequently, the circadian disruption alters biological functions such as heart rate and cellular recovery, causing various health problems. 

In another study, participants slept in a lab with bright or dim lighting. Those who slept in the brighter room had a higher heart rate and increased insulin resistance the next morning. 

Artificial light at night increases nighttime blood pressure and heart rate. Studies found that hypertension risk increases the brighter the room and the longer you sleep in the light. Scientists even speculate it could make you more likely to suffer a stroke. 

Earlier this week, we discussed the importance of a consistent sleep-wake time to help your circadian rhythm. Other actions that help include keeping your room cool or sleeping on a temperature-controlled mattress and cutting off food within two to three hours of sleeping.

The New Science of Healthy Dieting

The next time you think you need to be perfect with your diet, we hope you remember this study. 

Scientists recently found that a little more diet flexibility can be a more effective way to lose weight — and keep it off. 

Or, if you want the headline that grabs attention: Not obsessing about everything you eat resets your metabolism! (No, it doesn’t actually reset your metabolism, but it does help.) 

When you’re trying to lose weight, there’s a game within a game that is often overlooked. As you lose weight, your resting metabolic rate slows. This is normal and healthy (the smaller you become, the less energy you need to fuel your body). The problem is your resting metabolism is about 60 to 70 percent of your overall metabolism.

When diets have you drop weight too fast, your metabolism can slow down faster than the amount of weight you’ve lost. In other words, you burn fewer calories than you should at your new weight, making it harder to maintain or lose weight.

Scientists analyzed 12 studies measuring the effectiveness of “diet breaks.” They found that, on average, taking breaks resulted in a metabolism that burned about 50 calories more per day than those not doing diet breaks. 

This might not seem like much — and it’s nothing crazy — but it’s important to zoom out and see the bigger picture.

Weight loss is about playing the long game, so the more you can stack up small wins — such as maintaining a healthier metabolism that works with your body, the easier the process becomes. You’re told not to eat sugar or other non-nutritious foods because they will break your metabolism and make you fat. But that’s not what the research shows. Occasionally, having these foods has no negative impact or can lead to a healthier metabolic adjustment to eating better. 

More importantly, people who take breaks successfully lose just as much weight — if not more — as those who follow strict plans. 

Changing your body is as much about the psychological burdens as the physical changes. It’s natural to crave certain foods, and restricting too much increases tension, stress, and anxiety, making it easier for you to fall off plan and not make your way back to healthier habits. That’s why we say it’s important to follow a plan where you can’t screw this up. 

After all, research suggests that diet breaks help remove the psychological stress of dieting. In other words, while some flexibility won’t speed weight loss, you’re less likely to lose your mind, can enjoy some of the foods you love, and you’ll still see great results.

Publisher: Arnold Schwarzenegger

Editors-in-chief: Adam Bornstein and Daniel Ketchell