Many people fear a loss of thinking skills and memory as they age. But there are steps you can take to help keep your brain sharp — from taking a brisk walk, to learning a new language, to solving a puzzle.
Just like the rest of the body, the brain changes as you age. For example, blood flow may decrease, the brain can shrink, and there may be less communication between nerve cells. This can cause even a healthy adult to sometimes forget a word or a name, and it can make multitasking harder. But the good news is that research shows the brain remains “plastic” as you age, meaning that it’s still “able to adapt to new challenges and tasks,” according to the National Institute on Aging.
So, you may have some control over how well your brain ages. To help keep yours in top shape, consider adding these seven brain boosters to your routine:
1. Improve your overall health.
Good general health supports a healthy brain, according to Harvard Medical School. Make sure to make regular appointments with your doctor for wellness checks. With the help of your physician, keep your blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels in check. If you have a problem in any of these areas, your doctor can recommend lifestyle changes or prescribe medications. Cut back on drinking, if necessary, because heavy drinking is linked to cognitive decline.
Also keep a handle on your stress levels. Start with these simple breathing exercises that you can do anywhere, any time you have a few minutes free. While your body reacts to an emotional upset in the same way it would to a physical threat, breathing practice can help calm the stress response.
2. Exercise your body to build your brain.
The brain decreases in size by about 5% every 10 years after age 40. Exercise can help stave off some of those changes. A 2017 review of studies on exercise and the brain found that aerobic exercise helped to maintain volume in the left region of the hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays a role in long-term memory and spatial navigation. In other words, it can help you remember anything from the color of your childhood home to the best route to the hardware store.
The study found that people who did two to five sessions per week of cycling on a stationary bike, running on a treadmill, or walking were able to slow the reduction in brain size. This led researchers to declare exercise “a maintenance program for the brain.” In fact, exercise even lowers the risk for Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.
If you haven’t yet added exercise to your regular routine, get started with these exercise motivation tips. Simple hacks like creating a schedule, joining a fitness community, and switching up your workout can help to make workouts a regular and enjoyable part of your life.
3. Embrace brain health with a good sleep.
A 2017 study on sleep and the brain published in the journal Neurology linked a shortage of deep REM sleep to the development of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. REM sleep, a phase in which your eyes move rapidly and you dream intensely, typically first happens about 70 to 90 minutes after you fall asleep. Study participants who developed dementia took longer to get into REM sleep and spent an average of 17% of sleep in that phase. In contrast, the people who didn’t develop dementia spent about 20% of the time in REM sleep.
The good news is that you can learn how to sleep better. If you have sleep issues, start by asking your doctor about sleep disorders common in older adults. These include sleep apnea, insomnia, and restless leg syndrome. If you don’t have a sleep disorder, getting a better night’s rest might be as simple as adjusting the temperature and lighting in your bedroom, turning off electronics an hour before bed, and sticking to a sleep schedule.
4. Tease your brain with fun and games.
Keeping your brain in shape can be a lot of fun if you add brain teasers, crossword puzzles, and word scrambles to your daily routine.
One study published in 2017 in The International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology found that a computerized brain game improved memory in patients with a type of mild cognitive impairment. In the study, 42 patients played a “novel memory game” on an iPad. In the game, players earned gold coins by matching geometric shapes with geographic locations. Not only did memory improve, but participants enjoyed the game and were motivated to continue playing.
So, the next time you find yourself surfing the web, take a few minutes to solve an online brain teaser.
5. Focus on food to boost brain strength.
The food you eat also has an impact on mental function and memory. Some studies have linked cognitive decline to deficiencies in vitamins such as B12, folate, and vitamin D. It’s smart to discuss testing and supplementation with your doctor.
Barring any specific deficiencies that need to be addressed, general good nutrition may improve your brain health, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Fortunately, the foods that are good for cognitive function also can boost heart health. Consider eating more leafy greens and other cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, along with berries, cherries, and walnuts. Also make sure you’re getting plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, the Academy recommends. Good sources include algae and fatty fish such as bluefin tuna, herring, salmon, and sardines.
6. Grow connections with a new language.
If you’ve ever thought of dusting off your high school Spanish, learning to say hello in 50 languages, or picking up basic Japanese for an upcoming trip, now might be a great time to start. It turns out that languages not only connect people and cultures, but also they connect parts of the brain.
In a study on language and the brain at Penn State University, published in the Journal of Neurolinguistics, scientists scanned the brains of 39 native English speakers learning Chinese vocabulary. They found that just six weeks of language learning created new connections in the brain. Researchers concluded: “Learning a new language can help lead to more graceful aging.”
Not sure where to start? Try a language app such as Duolingo, which can be as effective a taking a college language class. If languages aren’t your thing, don’t worry. Any mentally stimulating activity can help boost cognitive health. So, take a class, learn a new skill, or read a book.
7. Build your social network.
Research shows that strong social networks may help to keep your brain healthy. In fact, one study on social networks and brain health found that larger social networks may be associated with a lower risk of dementia. If you’ve already got a close family and a big group of friends in place, that’s excellent news. If not, take small steps to reach out and build connections with others, from saying hello to a neighbor to making a lunch date with a friend you haven’t seen in a while.
While it’s true that the brain does age — just like the rest of the body — taking these proactive steps will go a long way toward keeping your mind strong, healthy, and sharp.
Let’s get started! Test your brain by matching these two of a kind diamonds.