Brain health plays a crucial role in cognitive function and can help prevent mental decline as you age. Improving your brain health can boost your memory, thinking skills and focus. But how can you boost your brain health? There are several steps you can take to keep your brain healthy at any age.
How to Improve Brain Health at Any Age
Keep Your Brain Active – But Not Too Active
The old saying “use it or lose it” also applies to your brain. Just like any muscle in your body, your brain needs to be exercised to stay fit and healthy.
Research suggests that brain games can improve cognitive function in healthy adults (1), but any mentally stimulating activity can help boost brain health, including:
- Crossword puzzles
- Math problems
- Taking courses
Mental stimulation can help the brain in a few ways. It helps forge new connections between nerve cells and may even help with new cell development.
While mental stimulation plays an important role in brain health, research shows that excessive brain activity can actually shorten your lifespan (2). Maintain a good balance between periods of stimulation and rest to prevent over-stimulation.
Take Up Meditation
Although meditation is an ancient practice, its effects on the brain have only been researched in the last few decades.
Neuroscientist Sara Lazar’s research (3) was groundbreaking. Her study found that meditation changes the brain in several ways. There was thickening in four key regions:
- The left hippocampus, which is responsible for cognition, memory, learning and regulating emotions.
- The posterior cingulate. This area of the brain plays a role in self relevance and mind wandering.
- The area of the brain stem that produces regulatory neurotransmitters.
- The TPJ (temporo parietal junction), which is associated with empathy and compassion.
The amygdala, which controls the brain’s fight or flight response, got smaller over the course of the eight-week study.
Lazar was driven to study this phenomenon after reading other research which showed the brains of 50-year-old meditators had the same level of gray matter as 25-year-olds.
Lazar’s research shows that meditation can benefit brain health in several ways, from improving the stress response to boosting memory and learning.
Diet plays an important role in brain health, and that’s partly because the brain consumes a substantial amount of energy (4).
To function optimally, the brain requires a balanced diet containing vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fatty acids.
Examples of brain-boosting foods include:
- Fatty fish, like salmon (rich in omega fatty acids)
- Kale (rich in vitamins and minerals)
- Blueberries (rich in antioxidants)
Modern diets are often lacking in omega-3 fatty acids (9), which is crucial for optimal brain function. Fatty fish is an excellent source of omega-3s, but there are also plant-based sources, such as chia seeds and flax seeds.
When fueled with the right foods, the brain can function optimally. A healthy diet will also help protect your physical health.
Regular exercise is good for both the body and the brain. Exercise helps move blood and oxygen to your organs, feeding your brain vital nutrients. Research highlights the benefits of exercise for brain health.
One study (5) followed 454 adults for 20 years, during which they underwent annual physical exams and cognitive tests. All participants were given accelerometers to keep track of their physical activity. Those who moved more scored better on thinking and memory tests.
Another study (6) found that 45 minutes of exercise three times a week helped improve thinking and memory in older adults with mild cognitive impairment.
Aim for 150 minutes of exercise at moderate intensity each week. Choose activities that you enjoy. Swimming, walking, biking, running or jogging can help you stay active
The brain is approximately 75% water, so hydration plays a key role in your brain health. When fully hydrated, memory recall is better, you can think faster, and it’s easier to stay focused for longer.
Water also plays a vital role in delivering nutrients to your brain and eliminating toxins.
Dehydration can cause brain fog, difficulty focusing, headaches, insomnia, stress and other issues. To keep your brain healthy and functioning optimally, make sure that you’re staying hydrated throughout the day.
Aim to drink at least six cups of water per day. Sipping water throughout the day will make it easier to stay hydrated.
Get Enough Sleep
Sleep affects several brain functions, including nerve cell communication and toxin removal (7). Sleep deprivation can make it difficult to stay focused during the day and can impair your cognitive function.
Make it a priority to get at least 7 hours of restful sleep each night. Limiting screen time before bed can help the body naturally wind down and prepare for sleep. Establishing and maintaining a sleep routine can help ensure that you get enough rest each night.
Maintain Good Relationships
Humans are social creatures. Isolation and loneliness may lead to depression and cognitive decline.
One study (8) looked at 147 pairs of male twins over 28 years and looked for signs or indicators of dementia. The study found that participants with greater social engagement during midlife had a significant delay in the onset of dementia. Social activities were linked to a lower risk of dementia.
Regular social interaction can help improve or maintain your brain health. Visiting friends or relatives is enough to help prevent isolation and loneliness.
Take Care of Your Physical Health
Regular exercise, hydration and a healthy diet can help protect your physical health as you age. Specifically, it’s important to maintain healthy:
- Blood pressure
- Blood sugar
High blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes are all risk factors for dementia.
High blood pressure can cause direct damage to the brain through a stroke, which causes brain cells to die. It can also cause blood clots in the arteries, blocking blood flow to the brain.
Optimal brain health can help stave off cognitive decline as we age. Taking a proactive approach to taking care of your brain can go a long way in keeping your mind sharp for years to come.
1. Al-Thaqib, A., Al-Sultan, F., Al-Zahrani, A., Al-Kahtani, F., Al-Regaiey, K., Iqbal, M., & Bashir, S. (2018). Brain Training Games Enhance Cognitive Function in Healthy Subjects. Medical science monitor basic research, 24, 63–69. https://doi.org/10.12659/msmbr.909022
2. Zullo, J.M., Drake, D., Aron, L. et al. Regulation of lifespan by neural excitation and REST. Nature 574, 359–364 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1647-8
3. Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry research, 191(1), 36–43. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006
4. Gómez-Pinilla F. (2008). Brain foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function. Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 9(7), 568–578. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2421
5. Mortimer, J. A., & Stern, Y. (2019). Physical exercise and activity may be important in reducing dementia risk at any age. Neurology, 92(8), 362–363. https://doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0000000000006935
6. Blumenthal, J. A., Smith, P. J., Mabe, S., Hinderliter, A., Lin, P. H., Liao, L., Welsh-Bohmer, K. A., Browndyke, J. N., Kraus, W. E., Doraiswamy, P. M., Burke, J. R., & Sherwood, A. (2019). Lifestyle and neurocognition in older adults with cognitive impairments: A randomized trial. Neurology, 92(3), e212–e223. https://doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0000000000006784
7. Xie, L., Kang, H., Xu, Q., Chen, M. J., Liao, Y., Thiyagarajan, M., O’Donnell, J., Christensen, D. J., Nicholson, C., Iliff, J. J., Takano, T., Deane, R., & Nedergaard, M. (2013). Sleep drives metabolite clearance from the adult brain. Science (New York, N.Y.), 342(6156), 373–377. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1241224
8. Carlson, M. C., Helms, M. J., Steffens, D. C., Burke, J. R., Potter, G. G., & Plassman, B. L. (2008). Midlife activity predicts risk of dementia in older male twin pairs. Alzheimer’s & dementia : the journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, 4(5), 324–331. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jalz.2008.07.002
9. Papanikolaou, Y., Brooks, J., Reider, C., & Fulgoni, V. L., 3rd (2014). U.S. adults are not meeting recommended levels for fish and omega-3 fatty acid intake: results of an analysis using observational data from NHANES 2003-2008. Nutrition journal, 13, 31. https://doi.org/10.1186/1475-2891-13-311