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Keeping Brains Healthy

Many things help your child’s brain development - and they also help us adults keep our brains healthy throughout life. Environmental factors (such as natural poisons or toxins) and lifestyle both have an impact but there are steps we can take to keep a healthy brain and mind.

This guide has useful tips for parents which will help give your child the best start in life.

Diet

The brain needs the right nutrients to ensure that it develops and functions properly. Our bodies need a good balance of carbohydrates, protein, fibre, minerals, vitamins and some fats and sugars. These can be gained from a variety of foods like meat, fish, legumes, fruit and vegetables.

The brain needs energy – which means carbohydrates. Although junk foods can provide a quick sugar fix, or ‘sugar high’, they do not feed the brain properly and can cause inconsistent blood sugar levels – resulting in a ‘crash’ in energy. Slow releasing carbohydrates, such as porridge and wholemeal bread, are most effective in burning energy gradually. Proteins are good for the brain, as well as iron (red meats, spinach) and also potassium, which can be found in bananas, mushrooms, beans and avocados.

The Mind website explains the importance of good diet for mood, and there are many articles and research studies stressing the importance of drinking water. Since the brain (and our bodies) are mostly made of water, we need to consume at least 2 pints per day, or we risk the brain becoming dehydrated. A glass of water can make the brain work 14% faster.

Healthy Body = Healthy Mind

Exercise is good for the brain - it releases endorphins that make us feel good! This helps to fight off mental health problems' such as depression, and can help us to feel happy and optimistic. Encourage your child to go outside, run, play, have fun and feel the benefits!

Health implications such as cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure and smoking can all compromise blood flow to the brain, so from a young age, educate your child on how to follow a healthy lifestyle.

As well as keeping us fit and happy, exercise also enhances sleep, which is fundamental for a healthy brain...

Sleep

Sleep is vital for the brain because it gives us the opportunity to regenerate. Sleep helps to enhance the brain’s development and memory. A decent sleep can also improve the way in which we think.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, we spend around 40% of our childhood sleeping so it is of vital importance. A lack of sleep can cause problems with behaviour – children can become irritable and reluctant to concentrate at school.

Toddlers need 11-14 hours a night, 3-5 year olds between 11 and 13 hours, 6-13 year olds need around 9-11 hours and for all other ages around 8 hours are recommended. NHS statistics show that only 50% of 11-17 year olds have the recommended amount of sleep. This can be detrimental to both their development and their education.

Developing Children’s Brains

It’s vital that parents realise the importance of early brain development. Save The Children suggests that around 130,000 youngsters are unfortunately not at the level they should be before they start primary school.

Some parents fail to accept how important the early years are for brain development and 61% of parents questioned are under the false impression that learning at school is most significant.

Give your children lots of opportunities to be creative and let their imaginations run wild – craft activities, singing, dancing, playing fancy dress and making up stories. The home is a great place for younger children to start learning. Give them tasks to focus on to help keep their brains active. Spend time reading with them and give them chance to expand their vocabulary – reading is one of the most important factors but it's often overlooked. Seldom is enough time is spent on it.

Maths is equally as important. A useful tip is to introduce children from an early age to counting money, measuring ingredients or identifying items. Parents need to help keep children’s brains mentally stimulated and constantly challenged.

Memory games are a brilliant idea. Test your children at memorising items, create a challenging treasure hunt or make a ‘mystery box’ where they have the chance to work the touch sense. Other useful games for mental stimulation can be puzzles, card games, jigsaws, ‘Simon Says!’ or even a family game of scrabble!

Teenager’s Brains and Technology

Due to hormones, many changes occur in teenage brains. Try and encourage your teenage child to focus on their education, and help them recognise the importance of sleep. Sports and hobbies can be a good release for them, so encourage these as much as possible. Due to the popularity and accessibility of technology, everything we need is available at the touch of a button and we can obtain information instantly. Don’t let your teenager spend hours sat in front of a TV, computer or mobile phone screen, as this can severely compromise their social and communication skills. ‘The Guardian’ article suggests introducing regular periods of ‘family time’. There are also many useful ‘Brain Training’ apps available for download on smartphones and Ipads.

Challenging the Brain

To maintain a healthy state of mind we need to always push ourselves to the limit and set challenges. Expanding our skills gives us focus and forces our brains to concentrate on something previously unknown. Learning a new sport, language, skill, or how to play an instrument can teach discipline and give our brain the opportunity to be pushed to the limit. We feel good when we have set our minds to something and succeeded.

And finally…

In order to keep brains healthy we need to find the correct balance. Ensure that children follow a nutritious and varied diet plan, recognise the importance of sleep and exercise and fill their lives with challenges and brain stimulating activities.

  1. There are many things we need if we want to get the most from our brains. Which of the following is NOT one of them?
    Along with diet, hydration and sleep, we also need to get enough exercise in order to oxygenate our brains well enough. Studies show that exercise improves our memories and helps to hold off brain-aging. Experts say that a teenager needs one hour of exercise per day, most of which should be moderate, with shorter bursts of more intense activity
  2. Certain nutrients are essential for good brain function, but which of the following should be avoided?
    Sugar, found in soft drinks, biscuits and other sweet treats, can produce hyperactivity in children and affect their concentration levels. Our brains need energy though, so try to get it from slow-release carbohydrates found in foods such as cereal, rice and pasta. Fats actually make up 60% of our brains so are as essential as vitamins and minerals - though make sure they're the right kinds of fat. Those found in seeds, nuts and oily fish are what our brains thrive on
  3. Exercise can actually raise our IQs. Studies in America have shown that 40 minutes of daily exercise increased a child's IQ by how many points?
    Trials done on elementary school children showed that their IQs rose by an average of 3.8 points when they exercised every day. So, if you want your child to do well at school, it's not all about studying!
  4. A good night's sleep is essential for a healthy brain. Which of the following should help us get to sleep more easily?
    Reading is a good way to relax before bed, but not from an electronic device - the light it produces blocks the melatonin which makes us sleepy. A warm drink can also help us sleep, but not one containing caffeine, like tea or coffee. Lie-ins disrupt our natural sleep rhythms - instead, try to get up at the same time every day. Exercise (done during the day - not just before bed!) reduces stress and promotes regular sleep
  5. The early years in a child's life are important for brain development. By what age is a child's brain half the weight of an adults?
    Hard to believe, but it's true! Nutrients, sleep and interaction are all vitally important, even in newborn children
  6. A government report in 2015 found that students who had a good home learning environment before they started school were more likely to achieve GCSE grades of A*-C. How much more likely?
    Students whose parents did such simple things as teaching them the alphabet, singing nursery rhymes to them, playing games with letters and numbers, reading to them and taking them to the library before they began school were three times as likely to achieve top grades as those who lacked the same. Clearly, younger children's brains are constantly soaking up information so stimulate them as much as you can
  7. Too much time spent in front of a TV, mobile or computer screen can have a detrimental effect on children's brains. Teenage boys have the most screen time. According to a 2015 report by Childwise, how many hours screen time do they have per day?
    The report looked at children aged between 5 and 16 years old and found that they spend an average of 6.5 hours in front of a screen on an average day. Back in 1995 the average was just 3 hours per day - what an effect mobile phones and internet access have had on our society!
  8. There are many ways to keep the brain stimulated and healthy. Which of the following is NOT one of them?
    Learning a foreign language is a great way to stimulate your brain - but reading words you don't understand isn't much help! Small challenges, like trying to write with your weaker hand, challenge the brain and make it work harder. Variety, like finding a different route than usual or cooking a different meal, also keeps the brain ticking over and time spent with friends and family has been shown to slow cognitive decline
  9. It's important to stay hydrated in order to maintain a healthy brain. What time of day is the best time to drink water?
    The time we spend asleep is the longest time we go without water. Even when lying in bed we are losing moisture in our breath so make sure that you have a drink soon after waking. Dehydration can have detrimental effects on concentration, memory and problem solving - so make sure you never go thirsty for long
  10. Our brains are made up of nerve cells called neurons. How many neurons are there in the average human brain?
    For comparison, a gorilla has around 33 billion, a monkey approximately 6 billion and a cat 0.76 billion. With so many neurons to keep in shape you can see why our brains require so much maintenance!

 

Author: Linda Innes

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