Psychology Melbourne Blog

News and Insights from the Science of the Mind

Seeds of better brain health

Edited by Jill Wright,

Interested in a healthier brain? You might want to listen to a Shrink Rap Radio interview with neuropsychologist Dr John Arden.

Arden's latest book, The Brain Bible, offers some scientifically-backed advice - as opposed to various fads and gadgets offered on the internet - on practical things you can do to improve and sustain your brain health, and therefore your mental health, as you age.

Along the way, it offers a fresh take on what we might call "wisdom".

Increasingly, neuroscience suggests that what we regard as wisdom isn't so much a cardinal virtue as the result of changes in the brain associated with ageing. 

While the common assumption these days is that the brain is on a continuous downhill path as we age, in fact the passing of years delivers an improved ability for the two cerebral hemispheres to work together and recognise patterns, compared with the more impulsive nature of younger brains.

The Brain Bible is organised along five major factors relating to brain health. Arden uses the mnemonic Seeds:

  • S for Social Factor
  • E for Exercise
  • E for Education
  • D for Diet
  • S for Sleep

The SEEDS formula begins with social interaction -something the brain thrives on. What we know now is that when the networks involved in social intercourse are deprived, they atrophy. People who are lonely in later life show deterioration, for instance, in the temporal and parietal lobes.

"If we become lonely," says Arden, "we end up getting depressed and anxious and in fact can get dementia much quicker than other people who aren't lonely."

Arden describes physical exercise as "the most powerful anti-depressant and anti-anxiety agent that we have, in comparison to medication and psychotherapy combined".

During aerobic exercise, the brain releases a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF - that stimulates the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, which is responsible for laying down explicit memories.

In the Kaiser Permanente Medical Centres in the US where Arden works,  they have developed prescription pads for patients that "dispense", say, a half-hour walk four days a week. Arden takes people out on hikes.

That E for Education doesn't require signing up for a university degree. What it is, says Arden, is "challenging your mind to try and understand what you had no idea about previously." This helps build new synaptic relationships, based on the work of Yerkes and Dodson, which I mentioned in my earlier post on psychologists working in the areas of music and dance.

His observations on diet - absolutely fundamental to brain health - will definitely steer you away from simple carbohydrates including white flour, white rice and sugar, which he associates with "brain fog" experienced by an increasing number of patients.

Arden's advice on sleep might be bad news for the wine industry. Drinking wine at night, he says, interferes with critical stages of sleep. That's not good for brain health.


About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the APS Victorian branch Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.

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