9 Brain-Aging ‘Sins’ That Kill Your Competitive Edge
Sitting all day, chugging coffee and skipping the gym can cause middle-age career death
It’s Monday morning and Michael, a senior executive at a global telecommunications company, faces the week utterly exhausted. Only 38, he’s been a high-level leader with the firm for more than a decade. Once he was a wunderkind, an “energizer” on the fast track to become the company’s youngest-ever CEO. But those days are over. Now, Michael is perpetually depleted, and his pinpoint focus has given way to constant brain fog. He struggles with stress and anxiety every day — a state of mind (and body) that’s killing his performance capacity.
There are many “Michaels” out there. As demands grow and resources shrink, we all struggle to do more with less — and without proper coping skills, we slide down a slippery slope of chronic exhaustion into debilitating burnout. That’s bad news for the middle-age-ish among us who must compete with the endless line of fresh-faced, energetic younger workers jostling for position.
Working while fatigued once in a while is OK, but when this state becomes chronic, our resilience against stress drops. Enthusiasm and motivation plunge. Before we know it, we can no longer perform at our best.
What’s more, this endless fatigue ages us rapidly. You don’t just feel older than your age; you are older. Your capacity to regenerate the cells in your body and brain falls off sharply.
That’s right: Stress is a potent cause of neurodegeneration. The brains of people who are chronically fatigued show signs of shrinking, which means stressed executives have about the same brain capacity as people decades older.
This deterioration of critical brain regions hinders memory processing, strategic planning and the ability to manage anxiety, which are all crucial skills for the executive. The deficiencies can knock you out of the game. Mental sharpness and the ability to innovate, collaborate and connect are the price of admission in today’s world.
The good news is we can affect how fast our brain ages, depending on how we treat it throughout life. Research at King’s College in the United Kingdom shows that the brains of elderly people who practice a healthy lifestyle are the same as people decades younger.
The lesson is clear: Overworked executives can go a long way toward keeping their brains young and high-performing by controlling their lifestyle choices.
We may be committing predictable brain-aging “sins” on a regular basis. Here are nine of the most damaging:
1 You regularly forgo a daily walk in favor of a flop on the couch.
After a long day, it’s tempting to talk yourself out of exercise with a weary “I’m just too tired.” But sedentary behavior doesn’t reward your fatigued brain and body — it makes you more fatigued. Your brain recovers better and faster when your body moves.
Movement produces proteins and hormones in the brain that stimulate memory and make you more alert. One such protein is called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is produced only during exercise and works like fertilizer to help new brain cells grow. Thus, a daily walk in the office, around the parking lot or through the airport helps keep your energy level up and your brain awake.
2 You hit the snooze button (again) and run out of time for breakfast.
While you’re still lying in bed, it may seem like a good idea to stay there for an extra 30 minutes at the expense of breakfast. But robbing your brain of essential nutrients in the morning is a big mistake. Just as an athlete’s muscles shrink without proper refueling, so do the executive’s “mental muscles.” Neurons in the brain die with repeated exposure to stress, resulting in a loss of brain mass and ability.
Try oatmeal topped with berries, cinnamon and walnuts. You may even be able to hit snooze once or twice and still have time to make and eat a healthy breakfast.
3 You skip lunch to take an emergency conference call.
If your workday includes last-minute meetings, emergency conference calls, staffing issues or other urgent craziness, taking time to refuel your brain can seem impossible. But the brain has a minimal capacity to store its own glucose, which is the primary brain fuel. When you skip meals, the regions of your brain responsible for self-regulation, empathy and solution-based thinking begin to shut down. You become hyper-responsive to stress, brain cells in your memory processing centers die and your brain ages more rapidly.
4 You don’t stock up on good snacks (so you naturally grab bad ones when temptation strikes).
Stress and fatigue are notorious triggers for bad-food binges. That’s why many people grab chips or cookies and mindlessly devour them while multitasking. The problem is that stress causes chronic brain inflammation, and processed foods such as cookies, sodas and cakes only add fuel to the inflammation fire. They speed up brain-cell destruction from stress, resulting in memory decline similar to what we see in Alzheimer’s patients.
Bring your own healthy snacks — those that build memory capacity, improve physiological brain balance, help you perform complex mental tasks, reduce symptoms of stress and anxiety, and keep you focused.
Bananas are a quick source of glucose and potassium, and potassium improves physiological brain balance. Cottage cheese is another good option because it includes whey protein, which has been shown to remove symptoms of stress and improve cognitive function. Bring a container of chopped celery, carrots and broccoli with organic almond or coconut butter for dipping. Finally, you can top anything with almonds, which improve cognition and memory.
5 You swill coffee and soda instead of water.
You may think your morning jolt of caffeine is revving you up, but it really isn’t. Yes, it creates a momentary lift as it blocks neurons in the brain that make you feel tired, but the lift quickly declines and fatigue sets in. The more you consume, the greater the impact of stress on your brain, and the more dehydrated you become. The best hydration is water, which transports nutrients and oxygen into your tissues and brain cells.
6 You regularly “relax” with an after-work beer or a nightcap.
Alcohol is not so much a relaxant as it is an anesthetic combined with a stimulant. During a stressful day, the brain cells in the hippocampus (our memory-processing center) are stretched beyond capacity. As we drink alcohol, our brains are anesthetized and overstimulated, which causes additional trauma to the hippocampus and compounds the damage. The brain can recover from the occasional trauma of drinking, but if it’s too much and too often, it loses its capacity to recover.
Practice mindfulness meditation, go for a walk or a run, or take a yoga class. All of them reestablish calm in the brain and body, and help you build brain cells rather than kill them.
7 You sacrifice sleep on the altar of work.
On occasion, we all have to burn the midnight oil to finish a project. Yet many executives think it’s a badge of commitment to regularly sacrifice sleep in favor of working late or starting up in the wee hours of the morning. The irony is that a bit more sleep would make them far more effective by allowing the body to recuperate and super-compensate (a fancy word that means to store excess energy for the next day).
A chronic lack of sleep has serious effects on brain health and function. One study showed that a single 90-minute reduction in sleep decreased performance and alertness by a whopping 32 percent, and another study showed that a chronic lack of sleep caused significant decreases in brain volume and memory. To top it off, poor sleep has also been associated with body fat gain, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.
8 You skip water cooler chats.
In today’s always-on, technology-fueled culture, it can be tempting to lock yourself in your office or hide away in your cubicle, chasing the rabbits of deadlines all day. No wonder research suggests that more than 50 percent of employees suffer from feelings of isolation at work. And that’s bad for organizational and personal performance.
One study showed that social isolation results in reduced capacity for planning, communicating, impulse control, imagination and empathy. Conversely, social interactions help us learn and see other perspectives. They help us relax and feel happier. They make us more effective when we do return to focusing on work.
9 You sit and sit (and sit some more).
Every day, millions of executives and office workers suffer the ill effects of sitting too much. Scores of research show that sitting more than six to eight hours a day increases brain stress and early mortality, not to mention exhaustion, stiff necks, heavy limbs and aching backs. If all that isn’t disturbing enough, consider that too much sitting actually thickens your connective tissue over time until you lose your range of motion (not unlike the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz”).
Hardworking neurons need oxygen and nutrients to function, build memory, remain alert and stimulate creativity. That’s why you must stand up and move around during the day. Stand at your desk; conduct stand-up or walking meetings; take regular walks away from your desk; walk or stand while thinking. These small changes will greatly increase oxygenation and reinvigorate the neurons needed for your brain to excel at any cognitive task.
Marcel Daane is CEO of Headstrong Performance, a Singapore-based, globally operating boutique consulting firm, and the author of “Headstrong Performance: Improve Your Mental Performance with Nutrition, Exercise, and Neuroscience.” He is considered a pioneer in integrating health and neuroscience to improve performance in executives. Daane is a former member of an elite naval intelligence unit with advanced degrees in neuroscience of leadership and complementary medicine.