Taking care of your brain’s health now can help delay or prevent the onset of cognitive dysfunction, including dementia, Alzheimer’s’ and more general memory loss. Your brain, like the rest of your body, needs consistent care and conditioning in order to perform at its best. Do your best to incorporate the five lifestyle habits discussed below to help keep your brain’s health optimal over the short and long run.
1. Get Your Sleep
Getting a good night’s sleep plays an important role in maintaining brain health as you age and may be key to preventing Alzheimer’s disease. Conversely, not getting enough sleep or having a disruptive sleep is a risk factor for cognitive decline and AD. (Source)
For many people, getting a good night’s sleep can be challenging, especially while raising young children, climbing the corporate ladder and/or when hormonal changes (e.g. menopause) take place. Sleep apnea and other medical conditions can also put a wrench in efforts to get a good amount of shut-eye.
Still, there are several practices we can incorporate to improve our chance of a good night’s sleep. The National Sleep Foundation recommends limiting daytime naps to 30 minutes. Avoiding stimulants (nicotine, caffeine) close to bedtime and limiting alcohol consumption. The Foundation also highlights the value of physical exercise on promoting high sleep quality and recommends avoiding foods that can cause indigestion (e.g. fatty/fried foods, carbonated drinks, citrus fruits, spicy foods, heavy/rich foods) near bedtime.
2. Eat Well
It should come as no surprise that a nutritious diet is key to maintaining brain health. The Mediterranean diet and the MIND diet have both been linked to better cognitive function in the ageing population and to reduced risk of cognitive diseases. The Mediterranean diet is rich in fruit and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, olive oil and fish. Importantly, the diet does not rely on processed foods, fried and fast foods, snack foods, red meat, poultry and whole-fat dairy foods; these foods are consumed infrequently or not at all.
The MIND diet, which is a combination of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet (created to address hypertension), and focuses on the best elements of each diet with respect to enhancing brain function. For example, rather than the general recommendation to eat a diet rich in fruits, the MIND diet suggests consuming berries specifically, as berries are the only type of fruit that’s been correlated with improved brain function. The diet encourages consumption of vegetables, berries, nuts, whole grains, olive oil, fish, beans, poultry and wine.
As with any diet, of course, the quality of the foods being eaten is important. Be sure to source high-quality olive oils, sustainable seafood, fresh nuts, and wholly whole grains.
Certain supplements can also help improve brain health. This topic is covered in more depth here.
- Claire T. McEvoy, Heidi Guyer, Kenneth M. Langa, Kristine Yaffe. Neuroprotective Diets Are Associated with Better Cognitive Function: The Health and Retirement Study. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 2017; DOI: 10.1111/jgs.14922
- Scarmeas N, Stern Y, Tang MX, Mayeux R, Luchsinger JA. Ann Neurol. Mediterranean diet and risk for Alzheimer’s disease. 2006 Jun;59(6):912-21. DOI: 10.1002/ana.20854
- Devore EE1, Kang JH, Breteler MM, Grodstein F. Dietary intakes of berries and flavonoids in relation to cognitive decline. Ann Neurol. 2012 Jul;72(1):135-43. doi: 10.1002/ana.23594.
Just like the rest of your body, your brain benefits from physical exercise. According to the Alzheimer’s Research & Prevention Foundation, regular physical exercise can reduce your chances of developing Alzheimer’s Disease by up to 50 percent. Research further suggests that exercise and dietary management can be an effective strategy to counteracting neurological and cognitive disorders. Exercise affects the brain in myriad ways. Aerobic exercise gets the heart pumping, which means more oxygen reaches the brain. A study out of the University of Naples found that physical exercise can trigger potent neuroplasticity, supporting the development and growth of the brain during adulthood. Exercise can also help counteract stress and improve mood. Incorporate a moderate amount of aerobic exercise (e.g brisk walking, cycling, dance fitness, swimming, etc.) into your daily routine – both your body and your brain will thank you!
- Fernando Gomez-Pinilla1,* and Charles Hillman.The Influence of Exercise on Cognitive Abilities. Compr Physiol. 2013 Jan; 3(1): 403–428. doi: 10.1002/cphy.c110063
- Laura Mandolesi, Arianna Polverino, Simone Montuori, Francesca Foti, Giampaolo Ferraioli, Pierpaolo Sorrentino, and Giuseppe Sorrentino. Front Psychol. Effects of Physical Exercise on Cognitive Functioning and Wellbeing: Biological and Psychological Benefits. 2018; 9: 509. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00509
4. Use It So You Don’t Lose It
Besides working up a sweat through physical exercise, your brain will also get a boost from mental stimulation. Several research findings have demonstrated a connection between keeping your brain active and reduced cognitive decline. From crosswords and math problems to creative pursuits, reading, and coordination exercises, there are plenty of ways to give your mind a workout. Keep it agile by trying new things (e.g. a community class) and introducing the unexpected to your routine. Remember how exciting each day seemed to be when you were a child? That’s because your brain was absorbing new information and experiences all the time. Give your mind the chance to explore and discover and it will embrace the opportunity.
For more on brain workouts and the research behind them, click here.
5. Avoid Drinking Alcohol in Excess
Research has found that excessive drinking is linked to increased cognitive decline. In fact, a 2017 study published by the BMJ (British Medical Journal) suggests that even moderate alcohol consumption (i.e. 4 pints of beer or 5 large glasses of wine per week) can have negative impacts on brain function in the short- and long-term and that light consumption of alcohol has no positive/protective function as has often been suggested. If you do consume alcohol, try to limit the number of drinks you have and the frequency with which you imbibe.