The brain is arguably one of the most important organs in your body. It does everything from reasoning and regulating thoughts and emotions to controlling breathing and motor skills, among other things. This is why keeping your brain in optimal shape should be a top priority.
While changes to your brain (and the rest of the body) are inevitable and totally normal as you age, certain lifestyle habits can help slow age-related cognitive decline and keep dementia at bay. Here are eight surefire tips to keep your brain active and young, according to experts:
- Sweat it out. “Exercise has an enormous impact on brain health,” says Dr. Dean Sherzai, neurologist and co-director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Program at Loma Linda University Medical Center, California. Physical activity boosts cognitive function through a range of processes. “One powerful way it does just that is through its effect on vascular functions (the circulatory system). Exercise can increase blood flow to the brain, reduce the stiffness of the blood vessels and prevent cholesterol plaque build-up in the vessels leading to the brain,” he tells. “Another way exercise helps grow the brain is by exponentially increasing the release of a very important brain growth factor called BDNF—short for Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor. This neurochemical helps with the growth of the connections between neurons, therefore increasing the size and function of the brain,” explains Dr. Sherzai. “Regular exercise also reduces inflammation and oxidative processes,” tells the neuroscientist. “The good news is that you don’t need to run a marathon to get these remarkable beneficial effects,” he adds. Just 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week (like biking, power walking, swimming or Zumba) is enough to reap the brain health-boosting benefits of exercise.
- Get quality sleep. The most important eight hours of the day, for your brain health, are the ones you spend sleeping, says Dr. Ayesha Sherzai, co-director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Program at Loma Linda University Medical Center. Sleep has two very important functions. First, “it helps consolidate and organize memories and thoughts from the previous day and week. The second function of sleep is that it does some serious cleaning of all the waste and by-products that have accumulated,” explains the neurologist. “Knowing the brain is only 2% of the body’s weight and yet it can consume up to 25% of the body’s energy, one can understand the amount of waste it can produce. If not removed, this waste can damage every system in the brain,” says Dr. Sherzai. “Much of the cleansing in the brain is done by the support system of the brain called the glymphatic system. This highly efficient system has been shown to work exhaustively at night to cleanse the brain,” she points out. Short-term lack of sleep can impair memory and focus while long-term sleep deprivation can lead to a significant accumulation of waste and destructive toxins that predisposes one to cognitive decline and even Alzheimer’s, tells Dr. Sherzai. Check out these quick tips to improve sleep by the National Sleep Foundation.
- Watch your blood pressure and blood sugar levels. “High blood pressure and high sugar levels are two of the most damaging pathologic processes in general, but especially to brain health,” says Dr. Dean Sherzai. “When it comes to high blood pressure, the damage is mostly at the vascular levels. This means the high levels of pressure in the large arteries going to the brain or the medium and small-sized arteries within the brain, over time, lead to rupture of the arteries—affecting the blood supply to that region of the brain,” Dr. Sherzai explains. Moreover, the repetitive high pressure can also cause damage to the lining of the walls of the blood vessels. “This leads to plaque formation which, in turn, eventually obstructs blood flow and leads to the loss of brain tissues and cells,” notes the brain health expert. Long-term high blood sugar levels, on the other hand, lead to insulin resistance and chronic inflammation—which can significantly damage the cellular structure of the brain, tells Dr. Sherzai. Studies indicate that both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes have been associated with diminished cognitive function. Besides, research shows that even insulin resistance (prediabetes), is correlated with cognitive decline. Here are a few quick tips to regulate your blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
- Eat well. “Food is the single greatest tool that we have for building better brain health,” says Dr. Ayesha Sherzai. As mentioned earlier, it can consume more than 25% of the body’s energy. “It’s voracious—this means that healthy meals can help heal the brain while less healthy foods can especially harm the brain,” tells the neurologist. Dr. Sherzai recommends a balanced, plant-centered diet for maximum brain health benefits. “But even a plant-forward diet with a mindful approach to including key food groups is beneficial to brain health,” she adds. Celebrity nutritional therapist, Amelia Freer suggests following the Mediterranean Diet (or a slightly adapted version of it) as it is rich in plants, polyphenols and healthy fats (including nuts, olive oil and oily fish). Research also indicates that adhering to this diet may be associated with better cognitive performance, adds the healthy eating expert. Besides, “there are certain foods that should be consumed daily to optimize brain health and function. We call these the Neuro Nine—these include leafy greens, whole grains, seeds, beans, berries, nuts, crucifers, teas and herbs and spices,” tells Dr. Sherzai. “These foods contain massive quantities of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant nutrients, as well as catalytic (building) vitamins along with the ever-essential mono- and polyunsaturated fats,” she notes.
- Learn something new. Another great way to boost brain health is by learning something new. You could learn to play a musical instrument, pick up a new hobby, or learn a new language or a professional skill. The key is to choose an activity that activates all parts or domains of your brain, like learning to play guitar. When you play the guitar you are learning to read musical notes—which activates the left parietal brain. And when you visually process the notes, it stimulates the occipital brain (visual processing brain). You are also being creative, thus stimulating the right parietal lobe, Dr. Sherzai points out. In addition, using your fingers to pluck the strings involves the cerebellum and the basal ganglia. And lastly, because you are doing something that is enjoyable and meaningful to you and doesn’t fall outside of real-life endeavors, it brings focus and pushes you to greater levels of complexity, explains Dr. Sherzai. “This trifecta of real-life activities (that challenge multiple domains of the brain), challenge and purpose is optimal for cognitive growth,” notes the neuroscientist. “When your brain stops to learn, especially as you grow older, it starts conserving energy and actually starts shrinking by pulling back connections,” notes Dr. Ayesha Sherzai. “So the most important thing you can do to build cognitive reserve and brain growth is to find an activity that you have interest in and work on getting better at it,” tells Dr. Dean Sherzai.
- Stay connected. Staying socially connected is the most efficient way to build and grow your brain as these human connections activate all parts of the brain, says Dr. Ayesha Sherzai. For instance, when you engage in a deep, meaningful conversation you are pushing the frontal lobe to grow because it has to think and process the information and interpret it. Meanwhile, the temporal lobe grows as one listens and encodes information and tries to maintain the information to use at a later time in the conversation. In addition, creativity is invoked when one creates new meaning and content to keep the conversation going and that builds the parietal lobe, tells Dr. Sherzai. When you visually process your environment and interpret people’s facial expressions and gestures, you are flexing the occipital lobe. Moreover, being emotionally invested in the relationship and conversation grows the limbic emotional part of the brain. And if you are having an animated discussion (eg: waving your hands and arms), you are also mobilizing the motor cortex and the cerebellum for more refined movement and coordination, adds Dr. Sherzai. Besides engaging in meaningful discussions and conversations, playing challenging games together like bridge or monopoly are also great ways for brain-building and brain preservation, suggests the neurologist. Here are a few easy ways to stay connected even during the pandemic.
- Avoid smoking. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 14% of Alzheimer’s cases worldwide are potentially attributed to smoking. “The toxins in cigarettes damage the blood vessels feeding the billions of neurons in the brain,” tells Dr. Dean Sherzai. In addition, smoking leads to inflammation and oxidative stress which also harm the blood vessels. “The net effect is loss of blood supply to the brain tissue when the arteries rupture, bleed or get clogged. The damage takes years, but quickly escalates into a massive stroke or microvascular disease that can contribute to vascular dementia,” notes the behavioral neurologist.
- Cut back on alcohol. Binge-drinking can be harmful to your brain health, both in the short and long-term. “Regular excessive drinking may physically damage the brain itself, increasing the risk of dementia,” says Freer. “It may also negatively impact one’s mental health,” she adds. “It is therefore recommended that we all stick to less than 14 units of alcohol per week. I would suggest significantly less than this for optimization of brain function. Plus, having three alcohol-free days every week,” suggests the healthy eating guru.