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Daniel Amen: The Secret to Longevity Is Conscientiousness

8 expert tips to improve brain health and extend your life

posted by Daniel G. Amen, M.D. , September 5, 2012 More by this author

digital illustration of a woman with her brain as a source of light

Daniel G. Amen, M.D., the founder and CEO of Amen Clinics, Inc., is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, and has more than 25 years of experience serving patients from 90 countries. He also led the largest, groundbreaking brain imaging and rehabilitation study on professional football players. Dr. Amen has authored 30 books, including Use Your Brain to Change Your Age.


digital illustration of a woman with her brain as a source of light
Chad Baker | Photodisc | Thinkstock
No pill, potion, lotion or cosmetic surgery can make you look and feel like you’ve taken a dip in the fountain of youth. However, as I write in my new book, Use Your Brain to Change Your Age, there are several natural ways to live longer, better and happier. As I researched material for the book, I discovered a remarkable longitudinal study that identified as one of the main predictors of longevity an intangible character quality that results from healthy brain function: conscientiousness.
 
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The study was launched in 1921 by Dr. Lewis Terman of Stanford University, who began evaluating 1,548 bright children born around 1910. Now spanning 90 years, Terman’s study (he died in 1956, but it was continued by other researchers) has led to many fascinating findings that clearly point to a relationship between healthy brain function and longevity. And the common denominator among subjects who lived full, happy and successful lives was their level of conscientiousness.

6 Key Traits of Conscientiousness

What is conscientiousness? It concerns the way we manage our impulses, and so it's a reflection of our self-discipline and ability to think before we act. Managing your impulses is a sign of good brain health, and will serve you in the long haul of life. Our impulses are not inherently good or bad; it's whether or not we act on them, and under what circumstances, that makes the difference. For example, sometimes we need to make a snap decision because time does not allow for in-depth consideration of the consequences. Other times we want to be spontaneous and fun. But when succumbing to impulses becomes your way of life, it can take a serious, negative toll on your health. In general, conscientiousness includes the following traits:
  1. True confidence. You have a true feeling of being self-efficacious. You know you can get things done.
  2. Organized, but not compulsive. You keep an orderly home or office, keep lists and make plans.
  3. A high sense of duty. You have a strong sense of moral obligation.
  4. Achievement-oriented. You have a strong sense of direction and the drive to be successful at whatever you do.
  5. Persistence. You have the ability to stay on track despite the obstacles that come your way.
  6. Thoughtfulness. You are disposed to think through possibilities, and the consequences of your behavior, before acting.
Can You Change Your Level of Conscientiousness?

In the Terman study, researchers found that people could increase or decrease their conscientiousness over time. Changing our personality traits is never easy. I have witnessed this with patients in my practice and experienced it myself. But as I have learned more about brain function — and even developed "brain envy," or the desire to have a better brain, and a better life — I have changed my habits and my behavior has become more consistent. I feel much more in control of my own behavior than I did even four or five years ago. For example, I'm exercising more regularly and vigorously and following a stricter diet. I have also, however, seen people's conscientiousness deteriorate, after a head injury, binge drinking or drug use; exposure to an environmental toxin; or at the onset of developing dementia.

The quality of your conscientiousness is a direct reflection of the physical health of your brain, specifically your prefrontal cortex (PFC). Neuroscientists call the PFC "the executive" part of the brain because it functions as the CEO inside your head, making decisions about every aspect of your life. A healthy PFC leads to good decisions and conscientiousness. An unhealthy or damaged PFC leads to poor decisions, a likely miserable life and even an early death.

Effective decisions usually involve forethought in relation to your goals, organizing and planning, which helps you live well not only in the moment, but also 10 or even 50 years from now. Being prudent is another way of describing conscientiousness. It means being wise and cautious. If you are conscientious, you are more likely to avoid dangerous situations and to be perceived as intelligent and reliable by others.

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8 Tips to Boost Your Brain and Live Longer, Better

You can optimize your PFC and your level of conscientiousness, to boost the control you have over your life, make beneficial decisions and behave in ways that benefit your health. Trying to use willpower to control your behavior when key traits of conscientiousness are absent, though, is nearly impossible. Here are eight tips to boost your brain so you can live longer, better:
  1. “Then what?” Always carry this question with you. Think about the consequences of your behavior before you act.
  2. Protect your brain from injury or toxins. Even though it is housed inside the skull, the brain is vulnerable. Concussion, whiplash and other trauma can have long-lasting impacts. Toxins from exposure to smoke and fumes, and even from eating some fruits and vegetables that may have had high exposure to pesticides, can also damage the brain, leading to poor decision-making.
  3. Get eight hours of sleep every night. Less sleep equals lower overall blood flow to the PFC, and more bad decisions.
  4. Keep your blood sugar balanced throughout the day. Low blood sugar levels are associated with lower overall blood flow to the brain, poor impulse control, irritability and bad decisions. Have frequent, smaller meals throughout the day, each including some protein.
  5. Optimize your omega-3 fatty acid levels by eating more fish or taking a supplement. Low levels of omega-3 fatty acids have been associated with ADHD, depression, Alzheimer’s disease and obesity.
  6. Keep a "One-Page Miracle." On a single piece of paper, write down the specific goals you have for your life, including your relationships, your career, your finances and your health. Ask yourself every day, "Is my behavior today getting me what I want?” I call this exercise the One-Page Miracle, because it makes such a dramatic difference in the lives of those who practice it. Your mind is powerful and it can make what it sees happen. Focus and meditate on what you want.
  7. Practice using your PFC. Self-control is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. This is why good parenting is essential to helping children develop self-control. If we gave in to our eight-year-old every time he or she wanted something or threw a temper tantrum, we would raise a spoiled, demanding child. By saying no, and not giving in to tantrums, we teach the child to be able to say no to himself or herself. To develop your own PFC, you need to do the same thing. Practice saying no to the things that are not good for you, and over time you will find it easier to do.
  8. Get the help you need. Illnesses such as ADD, anxiety and depression decrease self-control. Whether you visit the Amen Clinics or another clinic, getting the help you need for these conditions is essential to being in control of your life. Understanding and optimizing your brain can be the key to a long, happy, healthy life, with you in control.