"The brain is one of the most important organs in our body, but if we want it to work correctly we need to look after it," said Dr Juan Carlos Portilla, a spokesman for the Spanish Neurology Society. He explained that "unlike other organs when they have problems, our brain doesn't hurt so there is no warning and the first signs of neurological illness could occur unnoticed by the patients and their families".
This, he said, is why people so often forget the important role the brain plays in our health and don't spend enough time ensuring that it is working well.
The Spanish Neurology Society (SEN) recently launched an initiative with the theme 'A healthy brain, in a healthy body', and it aims to raise awareness of the importance of looking after the brain to prevent neurological illnesses.
The SEN estimates that 16 per cent of the population of Spain may suffer some type of neurological disorder, which means that about seven million people in the country could have some type of illness affecting the brain.
For example migraine, which can affect the quality of life of those who suffer from them; stroke; neurodegenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's, or epilepsy, are some of the most common neurological pathologies in Spain.
However, a healthy lifestyle and following a series of guidelines from an early age can help the brain to stay in shape, favour a healthy future and provide a greater probability of ageing with no neurological problems.
As the Spanish Neurology Society emphasises, "Bad habits in middle age can have consequences decades later, generating cardiovascular problems or increasing the risk of dementia."
These are the principal recommendations from experts to help your brain stay healthy:
- Stimulate cerebral activity through reading, writing, dancing, playing board games, doing manual activities such as art and handicrafts, solving crossword puzzles, conversing, travelling or even learning a foreign language.
- Maintain social and affective relationships, to avoid a feeling of social isolation and a lack of opportunities for communication.
- Avoid stress and have a positive attitude to life. Laughing is good for you.
- Take regular moderate exercise and don't have a sedentary lifestyle. It could be playing sport, or one or two walks a day of at least 30 minutes.
- Eat a balanced diet. The traditional Mediterranean diet is ideal for the brain because it is low in refined sugars and saturated fats and high in vegetables, fruit and fish. It is not advisable to use very much salt and, of course, it is best to avoid becoming overweight.
- Don't consume toxic substances such as alcohol, tobacco and drugs.
- Make sure you get enough good quality sleep. In adults, the recommended time is between seven and nine hours a day.
- Control vascular risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes and hyperglucemia. Hypertension is the principal risk factor for cerebrovascular illnesses such as stroke, but also for many other neurological problems.
- Protect the brain from physical blows from outside by wearing a helmet when riding a motorbike, bicycle or horse, and use the seatbelt when travelling by car. It is important to prevent accidents, especially in the workplace and in traffic.
"Taking regular physical exercise, avoiding a sedentary lifestyle, keeping intellectually active and controlling risk factors such as blood pressure and diabetes have proven to be beneficial for the brain in people of all ages, even in patients who have already suffered a neurological illness," said Dr Portilla.
"Also, activities which encourage cognitive stimulation like reading, dancing, talking, going to cultural events and other types of social activity also increase the resistance of our brain to neurodegenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer's and help to prevent them."