Five Myths About Brain Health
Brain health and maintenance is a widely discussed, widely referenced topic—by medical professionals and scientific researchers, in pop culture, and between family and friends. Yet, with all the information out there, and the many avenues for accessing it, brain health is also a topic that’s rife for misunderstanding. In this article, we’ll address a few of the most common myths about brain health, shining a bit of light into the muddied waters of the mind.
Our DNA is our Brain-Health Destiny
It can often feel like our health and how we age is written in the stars. Either we’ve won the genetic lottery with years gracefully passing by with very little trace, or we’ve been dealt a “bad hand” cursing our ancestors for the cards they’ve passed down. But in reality, our DNA is a bit less “destiny” and a bit more of a “blueprint,” especially as it relates to brain health. Sure, some things, like my curly hair or my daughter's brown-colored skin, are unalterable expressions of her’s and my genes (like the dimensions of a wall in a house plan), but many others can be influenced by the environment to which we’re exposed , and the consequences of our repeated actions  (like the materials the wall is made of and how regularly it gets rained on).
This concept of DNA as a blueprint, not our destiny—also called epigenetics—illustrates that gene expression can be changed by our lifestyle choices. When it comes to maintaining our brain and having the greatest impact on how our DNA is expressed, focusing on mental well-being, exercise, cognitively stimulating activities, sleep, nutrition, and social connectedness can positively influence how well we, and our brain, age .
Memory Loss and Dementia are Just a Part of Aging
Dementia and memory loss are often lumped together, written off as just another inevitable downside to our trips around the sun. First things, first, it’s important to note that dementia and memory loss are not the same thing. Dementia is a general term, a group of symptoms consistent across myriad diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Pick’s or as the result of severe head injury or long-term vascular complications .
General memory loss, like forgetting where we placed our keys or struggling to recall that one person’s name, can be more common in our older years. This could be from having more memories that need to be stored and sifted through to find our answers. But, evidence suggests that healthy, non-demented adults can improve and maintain their memory skills . Additionally, studies have shown that simply remaining present in our actions, like consciously placing the keys on the counter instead of flinging them on the couch while simultaneously texting the grocery list to our partner, will increase our capacity to remember where those darn keys were in the first place.
However you slice it, whether true dementia or general memory loss, we can influence our long-term brain health as we age.
Brain health is for “old people” to worry about
We are well aware of brain changes during our developmental and declining ages, but the brain is an ever-changing organ with brain tissue loss beginning in our mid-30s or before . Because of this, brain health is something that should be considered well before we find ourselves at an “old age.”
Aside from general decline, young people today are more susceptible to mental laziness stemming from smartphone overreliance . Dr. Kaufer, former neurologist and director of the UNC Memory Disorders Program, explained, “If you give people the ability to store information remotely, outside of their brain, they become more dependent on that, which actually can have a negative effect on people’s memory.” In other words, if we don’t have to work to remember a fact by storing it into memory because we have an encyclopedia at our fingertips (and consequently, can look it up at our next convenience), we’re less likely to actually remember that fact. Like my mom always said, “If you don’t move it, you’ll lose it.”
Finally, if you need more convincing that brain health matters at all ages, studies show that childhood brain injuries, like concussions, are associated with an increased risk of subsequent mental illness, poor school attainment , and autonomic dysregulation—when the right and left hemispheres of the brain don't communicate clearly and can present with absentmindedness, poor memory, migraines, and mood changes.
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks
It can feel harder to pick up new things in our older years, but that by no means we’re incapable—I mean, if my 74-year-old parents can pick up texting, I can certainly dedicate energy to learning new things as I age. Memory is dynamic, and our brains are capable of growing new neurons, meaning we have the power to strengthen it during all stages of life .
We can challenge ourselves by adopting new hobbies, nourishing our minds with insightful conversations, and uncluttering them by doing away with the petty stuff. We can revel in our wisdom, without sacrificing function, better handle stress, control our emotions, and find purpose and meaning in our lives.
We only use 10% of our brain.
The brain is a wonderfully complex organ with responsibilities beyond our comprehension. This complexity makes the brain and its function an obvious muse for fiction, like the notion that we only use 10% of it in our daily lives (heard that one before?). Technological advances (like PET scans and MRIs) and contemporary research have demonstrated that this couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Neurologist Barry Gordon at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine debunked the 10% myth, explaining, "It turns out though, that we use virtually every part of the brain, and that [most of] the brain is active almost all the time," Gordon adds. "Let's put it this way: the brain represents three percent of the body's weight and uses 20 percent of the body's energy" .
- Lobo, I. (2008) Environmental influences on gene expression. Nature Education 1(1):39. https://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/environmental-influences-on-gene-expression-536/
- Mintzer, J., Donovan, K. A., Kindy, A. Z., Lock, S. L., Chura, L. R., & Barracca, N. (2019). Lifestyle Choices and Brain Health. Frontiers in medicine, 6, 204. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmed.2019.00204
- Carlson, M., Langbaum, J., Rebok, G. (2007) Training and Maintaining Memory Abilities in Healthy Older Adults: Traditional and Novel Approaches, The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 62(1) 53–61, https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/62.special_issue_1.53
- Dementia Causes. Retrieved from https://stanfordhealthcare.org/medical-conditions/brain-and-nerves/dementia/causes.html
- Hedman, A. M., van Haren, N. E. M., Schnack, H. G., Kahn, R. S., & Hulshoff Pol, H. E. (2012). Human brain changes across the life span: a review of 56 longitudinal magnetic resonance imaging studies. Human Brain Mapping, 33(8), 1987–2002. Doi: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21915942/
- Kaufer, D. (2020, September 16). The Effects of Smartphone Usage on the Brain. UNC Health Talk. https://healthtalk.unchealthcare.org/the-effects-of-smartphone-usage-on-the-brain/
- University of Oxford. (2016, August 24). Childhood head injury linked to higher risk of poor adult mental health and life chances: Long-term effects of childhood brain injuries