Would you believe that much of the aging process is all in your head? In many ways, how we age often starts in our brain since what we think plays a significant role in both how long and how well we live.

Brain health has definitely hit the big time. Never before has there been so much interest in the human brain among mainstream America. The explosion of the brain health industry over the last few years – specifically in the areas of memory enhancement and brain fitness – has become a multi-million dollar business.

Built on recent scientific studies and demand from the Boomer population for mentally active aging, a new frontier of discovery and opportunity is upon us. And while there is still much we don’t understand about the brain and its complexity, we do know brain health is a key part of total wellness and is absolutely essential for good health.

When you think about it, everything we do starts in the brain – how we grieve, love, hurt, laugh – are all emotions that come from the brain, not the heart. And while most everyone knows what to do to be heart healthy, few people really understand what we need to do to promote good brain health.

To begin with, the brain doesn’t care how old you are – all it wants is to be stimulated. In fact some of the most exciting research in this area revolves around the brain’s ability to develop new brain cells – neurons – throughout the life span. This is a particularly important issue when you consider the fact that the incidence of dementia, including Alzheimers disease, doubles every five years between the age of 65 and 85. Additionally, there’s a 50% chance of form of dementia after the age of 85 – which is also the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. However, by continuing to keep the brain active through the development of dendrites and new neurons, we can significantly slow down the progression and onset of brain deterioration. A recent study reported that people who spent three (3) hours a day engrossed in mental activities ranging from playing board games, reading, dancing, or playing a musical instrument had a 75% lower risk of developing dementia than those who spent less (or no) time doing these activities.

One of the foremost experts in this field and an international leader in the area of brain health lifestyle, Paul Nussbaum, Ph.D., has identified five contributing factors that affect brain vitality:

Socialization: Loneliness and isolation increases the risk of dementia so staying engaged and connected with friends and family provides tremendous benefits. Having a sense of purpose, meaning in your life, and a reason to get up in the morning can be one of the biggest challenges for retirees who often don’t know what to do once they leave the workforce because they’ve usually built their entire life around work — including social relationships. Recognizing this and having a plan of what you’ll be retiring to is equally, if not more important than what you retire from.

Physical Activity: Most people associate physical activity to living longer, but few realize that 25% of our heartbeats go to the brain. So physical activity not only improves cardiovascular and cerebral blood flow, but also increases circulation so the brain cells receive more nutrients. Additionally, there is strong evidence that exercise promotes neurogenesis – the growth of new brain cells (neurons) and the connection between these cells. While we all know exercise is good for us, what many probably don’t know is how bad it is if we don’t do it. Dementia risk is quadrupled among the least physically fit agers than those who are even just moderately active.

Mental Stimulation: Challenging the brain through both novel and complex activities such as learning a new language, researching a trip and traveling also decreases the risk of dementia.

Spirituality: In this fast-paced world, it’s essential to learn how to slow down and connect within – be it through prayer or meditation – both processes reduce stress and benefit our overall health.

Nutrition: The physiological effect of a healthy diet also benefits brain health, particularly by preserving the integrity of blood vessels that transport oxygen to the brain. Well-known brain- boosting foods such as fish (with its beneficial fatty acids and omega threes) and antioxidant rich foods like fruits and vegetables can significantly increase performance in memory and learning.

So as we all explore this new adventure in longevity, we need to continually rethink our route, recognize that we are the navigators of our journey, and our mind is our constant guide.

Think about it.