Mind Works

By Chandra Orr

November 20, 2008 5 min read


How to live longer by working out your brain

Chandra Orr

Creators News Service

More than 2,000 years ago, Greek physician Hippocrates explored the mind-body connection and determined that our state of mind greatly influences our physical health. Since then, a growing body of scientific evidence has supported his claims.

It turns out that those who see the glass half-full live longer, healthier lives.

"A positive attitude and laughter increase the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. These neurotransmitters cause us to feel good, get things done, resist sugar and other carbohydrate temptations and sharpen our minds," said neurologist Vincent Fortanasce, author of "The Anti-Alzheimer's Prescription: The Science-Proven Plan to Start at Any Age" ($26, Gotham Books).

On the converse, those who see the glass as perpetually half-empty are at a greater risk for long-term illness and serious health problems.

"Anxiety and depression have been linked to poorer health and shorter lives," said Kate Flanigan Sawyer, co-author of "Longevity Made Simple: How to Add 20 Good Years to Your Life" ($14, Williams Clark Publishing) and director of the Heart and Health Prevention Center in Denver, Colo.

"Personality traits such as anger, hostility, irritability and gloominess increase the amount of stress in our lives, which can lead to a higher incidence of hypertension and heart disease," Sawyer explained.

When anxious or stressed, the nervous system releases hormones like adrenaline, which raises blood pressure and increases heart rate, and cortisol, a stress hormone that suppresses the immune system.

"Even though the exact mechanism connecting the mind and physical health is not completely understood, we do know it's just as important to pay attention to the health of your mind as it is your body for a long, happy life," Sawyer said.

So find your happy place. Frequent mental stimulation, a strong social network and regular stress-reducing exercise are the keys to maximum joy -- and maximum health.


Give your brain a daily workout. Regardless of age, the brain can continue to grow new neurons and dendrites and make new connections, which improves mental fitness, according to Fortanasce.

"You must use it or lose it," he said. "Seniors can ensure their minds stay sharp by knowing facts and doing the common uncommonly."

Challenge yourself. Solve the daily crossword puzzle, memorize birthdays and phone numbers, eat and write with your non-dominant hand, take a class, learn a new language or just improve your vocabulary -- anything that offers novelty and the chance to practice the unfamiliar will improve memory and mental acuity.


Though the exact link between social ties and better health is not completely understood, evidence shows that those with a strong social network tend to live longer.

"Factors such as wealth and status do not seem to be important indicators of one's happiness," Sawyer said. "People who have satisfying marriages, have good friends and participate in religious or community organizations are generally happier and more satisfied and enjoy better health."

Spend more time with close friends and family, join a civic organization, take a class, volunteer for a local charity or just get out and meet your neighbors. According to Fortanasce, frequent social interaction boosts dopamine and serotonin, which are neurotransmitters essential to maintaining a good mood.

"Socialization engages the brain in such a way that it is not allowed to grow stagnant," he said. "Social networks are also support systems that allow us to vent problems, are a source of happiness and pleasure and are a community in which we can gain advice or aid in overcoming our troubles."


Need another reason to get out for a daily walk? In addition to the obvious physical benefits, routine exercise helps ward off symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress with a dose of feel-good endorphins -- the hormones released by the body in response to pleasure and physical activity.

From aerobic activities like walking and swimming to anaerobic strength training and meditative tai chi and yoga (when done properly), any exercise is good for the brain.

"Exercise raises the levels of mood-enhancing neurotransmitters in the brain," Sawyer said. "Exercise improves self-esteem and self-image, releases muscle tension, improves sleep and reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It also increases body temperature, which may have calming effects."

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