Researchers Explain 5 Habits That Can Damage Your Brain

Researchers Explain 5 Habits That Can Damage Your Brain


The brain is our most vital organ. It’s what makes us, well, us. While the debate of “brain vs. mind” is justifiable and even necessary, one thing is for certain. Damage this most vital organ to a certain point and we vanish. Figuratively if not literally.

In this article, we’re going to talk about five habits that can damage the brain. We’ll also give a short primer on its structure and function. To cap things off, we’ll discuss lifelong habits that promote brain health.

Let’s do this!

The Mysterious, Magnificent Brain

“The human brain has 100 billion neurons, each neuron connected to 10 thousand other neurons. Sitting on your shoulders is the most complicated object in the known universe.”      ~ Michio Kaku, theoretical physicist (source)

On the surface, there is nothing exceptional about our brain. If you could take the organ out of your head and look at it, what would you see? Nothing pretty. A three-pound mass of what appears to be folds of some grey matter covered in fat.

But it isn’t what’s on the surface that makes this organ remarkable – it’s what lies underneath. Namely, the 100 billion nerve cells, or neurons, that are constantly firing across the brain. Watch a video of a functional magnetic resonance image (fMRI) in real-time, and you’ll see what appears to be a massive, unremitting lightning storm.

Each of our brain’s 100 billion neurons is exceptionally complex. Structurally, the neuron consists of dendrites, soma (or cell body), axon (“tail”) and terminal branches. Called the “basic” unit of the brain, these innumerable, specialized cells communicate with cells across the brain and body. Neurons are solely responsible for the continuous function of our body.

When asked how close we were to understanding the human brain, Christof Koch, Ph.D., scoffs before replying as follows:

“We don’t even understand the brain of a worm.”

To put this gulf of knowledge about the brain into some perspective, the typical worm – a roundworm – contains 302 neurons and some 7,000 connections. Per the Allen Institute for Brain Science, “…we still don’t understand how [the neurons] all work synergistically to give rise to the worm’s behaviors.”

Looks like we’ve got a ways to go.

The Dangers of Brain Damage

Why did we include a section discussing the sheer majesty of the brain? Simply to emphasize just how remarkable of an organ it is – and how critical it is to take care of it. Which leads, naturally, to the real dangers of brain damage.

In the U.S. alone, there are over 2.6 million reported cases of brain injury. Most instances of brain injury occur from serious events like stroke, trauma, or tumor growth. Per the Brain Injury Association of America, 52,000 people die as a result of brain injury every year. More than 5 million Americans require daily assistance due to injury.

Two Kinds of Brain Damage

There are two primary classifications of post-birth brain damage: traumatic brain injury (TBI) and acquired brain injury (ABI).

TBI is the result of an external force that damages the skull. In turn, this skull damage inflicts brain injury. ABI is brain damage that transpires on the cellular level. Catalysts of ABI include most forms of non-impact neurological illness, including a brain tumor and stroke.

Symptoms of brain damage vary. Symptom severity is dependent upon the type of brain injury. Temporary brain injury (not to be confused with TBI) often leads to short term symptoms. Temporary brain injury symptoms include confusion, headaches, memory problems, and nausea.

Severe brain damage leads to disability or death. Symptoms of severe brain damage may include blurred vision, difficulty hearing or speaking, hemorrhage, and loss of consciousness. Cognitive, behavioral, and physical disabilities often result. Many who survive severe cases of brain damage may enter and remain in a comatose (nonresponsive) state.

While not every instance of damage is preventable, many are indeed avoidable. To start with always wear a helmet and protective headgear when playing sports. Reduce your risk of stroke by eating right and losing excess weight. Simple preventative measures can make all of the difference.

Now that we’ve covered the most overt type of brain damage, let’s discuss the more subtle habits that can inflict serious harm.

5 Habits that Damage the Brain

“Smoking is hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, and dangerous to the lungs.”         ~ King James I (1566-1625)

For someone who lived over four centuries ago, King James I showed remarkable insight into the nasty health effects of smoking. The great king probably could have never predicted that people would continue to ignore the noxious health effects of lighting up. And despite the piles of research directly implicating smoking to increased risk of cancer, lung disease heart disease, and stroke.

Oh yeah, and smoking is harmful to this organ as well as others. No big surprise there. Well done, James!

Without further ado, here are five habits that researchers say cause damage.

  1. Smoking

Let’s just pick up where we left off. While most of the attention on the effects of smoking go to the heart and lungs, smoking does indeed inflict brain damage. In a 2017 paper published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers conclude that smoking shrinks multiple areas of the brain.

Among the organ’s regions affected include the cerebellar cortex, corpus callosum, and thalamus. In “higher pack-year” * users, smoking was also linked to shrinkages of the bilateral amygdala, nucleus accumbens, and subcortical areas.

*Pack-years are a measure of lifetime exposure to cigarettes. Consider the following calculation for comparative and illustrative purposes:

Person 1 smokes 10 cigarettes per day for 10 years: ½ pack (10 cigarettes) x 10 years = 5 pack years.

Person 2 smokes 30 cigarettes per day for 25 years: 1 pack (20 cigarettes) x 25 years = 25 pack years.

Because person 2 is a higher pack-year user than person 1, he or she is likely more at risk for smoking-related conditions.

  1. Oversleeping

On the social forum Quora, a user by the name of Sachin Singh offers up some (mostly) astute advice against taking long naps.

“During the day, short naps no longer than 20 minutes will leave you feeling energized. Longer naps of roughly half an hour will leave you feeling groggy and sluggish. This feeling comes from entering the deeper stages of sleep that occurs after 30-60 minutes,” writes Singh.

It turns out that Mr. Singh is right – for the most part. Per a study published in the journal Current Opinion in Pulmonary Medicine, 30 minutes – not 20 – appears to be just about right. According to the study’s authors, naps exceeding half an hour are associated with sleep inertia and loss of productivity.

  1. Skipping Breakfast

One Vanesh Bhagat warns against the perils of skipping breakfast. “Those who do not eat breakfast will have lower blood sugar levels. After a long night without eating, this can lead to an insufficient supply of nutrients to your brain. If repeated often enough over a lifetime, this can cause brain degeneration.”

Yes and no.

If Mr. Bhagat is implying cognitive deterioration results from skipping breakfast, he is indeed correct. However, physical degeneration of the brain merely from skipping breakfast – assuming otherwise-healthy dietary habits – is probably a reach.

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