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The Science Behind Increasing Happiness and Brain Health for Mature Adults

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Tips for increasing dopamine levels

As we age, we may find ourselves with more mental fatigue and feeling blue. Scientists have yet to pinpoint the exact causes for these conditions, but evidence points to decreased neurotransmitters and decreased blood flow to the brain as culprits.

Over the last decade, there has been an explosion of new information in neuroscience, specifically in the area of brain protection and preserving brain function.

For years, scientists have called a specific neurotransmitter of the brain, dopamine, the “happy” neurotransmitter. Dopamine is one of the brain chemicals in our limbic system which controls our mood, behavior and motivation — i.e., happiness.

More recently, this neurotransmitter has also been linked to neuroprotection and preserving brain function as well. Symptoms of low dopamine levels are fatigue, low sexual drive, muscle stiffness, insomnia, lack of motivation and apathy. Many scientists believe that maintaining and/or raising dopamine levels in the brain are linked to improved “happiness” and neuroprotection.

Recent literature has identified five simple activities we can add to our daily lives linked to elevated dopamine levels in the brain. The first of these is exercise. It is believed that exercise produces increases in heart rate and blood flow and produces elevated levels of brain dopamine.

A 2018 study in the Neurology Clinical Practice Journal found that exercising for one hour a day, three times per week, improved cognitive performance in older adults with and without cognitive impairment. The authors found that the exercise modes most effective for improving cognitive health and well-being included aerobic and strength training exercises.

Starting or maintaining an exercise routine can be a challenge at any age — and it does not get any easier as we age. We may feel discouraged by aches and pains or current medical conditions. However, it is important to remember the benefits that exercise offers:

• Stress relief

• Improved mood

• Helps in managing symptoms of medical conditions such as diabetes and hypertension, decreases pain, and improves our overall sense of well-being.

Further, reaping the benefits of exercise does not have to include going to the gym daily or strenuous workouts. These rewards can be gained by adding more activity to your daily routine, even in small amounts, called “incidental activity.”

Examples of incidental activities can include taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking farther away from your destination, walking or biking places instead of driving, or walking your pet daily. These activities are considered aerobic and will help increase blood flow and dopamine levels in the brain.

Strength training includes the use of resistance exercises. Examples include lifting weights, using a resistance band or doing bodyweight exercises such as squats or sit-to-stand exercises. Not only do these exercises improve strength, but they also increase heart rate and blood flow to the brain.

To get the most benefit, individuals 65 and older should get at least 2.5 hours of moderate aerobic exercise (such as brisk walking) every week, or an average of 30 minutes on most days of the week. You should also do strength training at least two days a week.

Second, engaging your brain to learn something new or concentrate on a cognitive activity has also been linked to increased dopamine levels. Activity as simple as painting lessons, going to the museum, or working on simple crossword or Sudoku puzzles is all that is needed. Something that makes you concentrate. You may be amazed at how good you feel when you accomplish something you have been working on.

Third, physical touch is also important. When we touch, such as hugging or holding hands, our body releases feel-good hormones such as dopamine. In addition, touch also reduces our body’s stress hormones, such as cortisol. Increase the number of hugs your give or receive, hug longer, hold hands, take a ballroom dance class or even get a professional massage frequently. You will be amazed at how good your feel.

Fourth, laughter is also important. Listen to a comedy channel, stream old comedy sitcoms or TV shows like “Sanford and Son,” “Dean Martin Roast” or “My Three Sons,” or tell quirky jokes that make you laugh. Studies have shown laughter decreases physical and emotional tension, elevates mood, enhances cognitive functioning and increases dopamine levels. Laughter also protects your heart, as it provides an anti-inflammatory effect that shields blood vessels and heart muscles from heart disease.

Finally, make sure to include foods in your diet that are known to stimulate your body’s dopamine production. These foods include leafy green vegetables, salmon, chicken, nuts and seeds, cheese, yogurt, eggs, chocolate, coffee and an occasional glass of red wine. These foods are rich in B vitamins and the amino acid tyrosine, which are important for our body to make dopamine.

By adding these recommendations to your daily routine, you can improve your cognitive health and well-being. Do not delay implementing these activities and foods today because we all deserve to live healthy, happy, productive lives as we age gracefully!

Suzanne Tinsley Ph.D., PT, is associate director for the Center for Brain Health, Parks Endowed Professor of Neurological Rehabilitation; associate professor Department of Rehabilitation Sciences; and assistant vice chancellor for institutional advancement, LSU Health Shreveport. Marie Vazquez Morgan Ph.D., PT, is assistant vice chancellor of institutional wellness; Cole Endowed Professor in Community Health Initiatives and associate professor for the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences, LSU Health Shreveport.

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