You already know that it’s important to take care of your physical health and your mental health, but what about your brain health? While declines in memory, focus, attention, learning, and other aspects of cognition are common with advancing age, they’re not inevitable. If you’re wondering how to keep your brain sharp for life, read on for the lifestyle habits and brain exercises that have been shown to keep mental faculties strong and stave off cognitive decline.
Tips to Keep Your Brain Sharp – Backed by Science
Here are the science-backed daily habits you should incorporate into your life for better brain life – now and into old age.
1. Exercise regularly
The brain naturally shrinks in size with age, with associated decreases in learning and memory function, but regular exercise can lessen the severity of these losses. Long-term exercise improves memory and recall, but even a short bout of exercise is beneficial for memory. Physical exercise has also been linked to improved neuroplasticity, which allows the brain to reorganize itself to learn, respond to new input, and recover from physical injury. Ongoing research also shows that regular exercise reduces the risk of dementia substantially and may also be protective against Alzheimer’s disease.
Takeaway: Make regular exercise a part of your life; 150 minutes a week is the recommended amount – but something is better than nothing, so start where you are and build up.
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2. Sleep Well
The importance of ample, uninterrupted sleep cannot be overstated. Study after study has shown the deleterious effects of disturbed sleep on physical, emotional, and cognitive health and on quality of life. In the short term, sleep disruption causes deficits in cognition and memory, and in the long term, disturbed sleep appears to be a major risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and other kinds of problems with cognition.
Takeaway: Make adequate (7 hours), uninterrupted sleep a top priority to optimize long-term brain health.
3. Limit Alcohol
Multiple studies have shown that alcohol is bad for the brain, including a 2021 observational study that concluded that no level of alcohol is safe. Alcohol causes the brain’s gray matter to shrink, and smaller brain volume is associated with worse memory and dementia. Alcohol also affects the hippocampus, which is critical in memory formation.
Takeaway: Abstinence is best for brain health, but if you do still want to drink, limit your intake as much as possible since the more you drink, the worse it is for your brain.
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4. Avoid Ultra-processed Foods
Ultra-processed foods – which account for 57% of the calories in an average American’s diet – are linked to cognitive decline. In a study following 10,775 individuals, those who consumed more ultra-processed foods had higher levels of cognitive decline, specifically a decline in global and executive function.
Takeaway: Reduce the amount of ultra-processed foods in your diet, such as ready meals, frozen pizzas, sodas, sugary breakfast cereals, packaged snacks, and packaged soups.
5. Eat Brain-Healthy Foods
Instead of ultra-processed foods, fill your diet with foods rich in antioxidants, which are beneficial to many aspects of health including improved memory, attention, and cognition. Phenolic acids (in nuts, berries, olive oil, and coffee) and polyphenols (in foods like dark chocolate, olives, blueberries, and blackcurrants) in particular have strong associations with cognitive health. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids (like flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, salmon, and sardines), also appear to help reduce mild cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
Takeaway: Eat more unprocessed foods high in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids.
6. Focus on Friendships
The exact mechanism of action is unclear, but what is clear is that feeling connected to others is associated with better brain health in old age. People experiencing social isolation and loneliness are at greater risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. One interesting study of 2,173 older people found that people who reported feeling lonely, even if they were not socially isolated, were more likely to develop dementia than those who didn’t.
Takeaway: Cultivate friendships and relationships with people throughout your life to stave off loneliness.
7. Get High Blood Pressure Under Control
High blood pressure affects brain health. The brain gets 20% of the body’s blood, despite being only 2% of the body by weight, so it’s not surprising that healthy blood flow is vital for the brain to function well. Studies show that people with high blood pressure in their 40s, 50s, and early 60s have a higher risk of cognitive decline later on, so it’s not just cardiovascular health that’s at risk with high blood pressure, but brain health, too.
Takeaway: Work with your doctor to get your blood pressure to a healthy level through lifestyle changes and, possibly, medication.
How to Keep Your Brain Sharp: 7 Proven Exercises
Working out your brain makes it stronger! In the words of a 2019 study on chess practice as a protective factor against dementia, “Effortful mental activity produces and strengthens synaptic connections and stimulates the neurogenesis process. Thus, it promotes plastic changes in the brain that slow down the symptoms of dementia.”
This means that you need to seek out activities you find difficult because it’s exactly this kind of challenge that forces the brain to make new connections and stay sharp. Unfortunately, sitting down with an easy crossword puzzle, speaking a second language you already know fluently, or reading a fun novel you’ve read 10 times before won’t cut it. If it’s not difficult, it’s not giving you the brain benefits you’re after.
If instead, you find yourself thinking “This is hard!” then you’re on the right track to better brain health!
1. Study a new language
You don’t need to become fluent in a new language to reap the benefits, which include better concentration and memory.
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2. Learn a new musical instrument
Just as learning a new language is challenging, so is learning to play a musical instrument, and its benefits include decreased loss of memory and cognitive function.
3. Do challenging puzzles and games
Yes, doing puzzles for fun is good for your brain! One study on 16,572 older people found that engaging in “cognitively stimulating leisure activity” (CSLA) like crosswords and sudokus led to better cognitive function two years later. Other challenging games, like chess, also appear to be protective against dementia and cognitive decline, as per the study cited above.
4. Practice mindfulness-related meditation
Mindfulness meditation appears to improve focus and attention. Regular practice may also improve cognitive reserve, which is the resiliency some people have to cognitive decline and dementia.
5. Read regularly
Observational studies suggest that regular reading is linked to a lower risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia. For instance, a 2021 study of 1,962 older adults found a correlation between a higher frequency of reading activity and lower rates of cognitive decline 14 years later.
6. Take up a new hobby, especially a physical one
Dive into a new hobby and strengthen your brain. While your brain will benefit from any activity that’s new to you and challenging, you’ll get extra benefits from one that’s highly physical or relies on motor skills, since this type of activity has been shown to increase gray matter in the brain.
7. Try some “brain training”
The jury is still out on how effective paper-based or computer-based memory games and similar “brain training” games really are at keeping the brain sharp and staving off dementia in old age. But it does appear that the particular skills being practiced can and do improve during the course of training, and it may persist over time. So if you want to improve in one particular area (like memory), or you enjoy brain training games, do them! There’s no downside to adding them to your brain health routine.