To protect your cognitive health, you don’t need to shop for expensive superfoods for the brain. Nor do you need to buy brain teaser apps or specific brain exercise products.
In fact, the list of lifestyle changes that benefit the brain isn’t very surprising. A healthcare professional — probably more than one — has likely already suggested everything on it.
“What’s good for your overall health is good for your brain too,” says Bryan K. Woodruff, M.D., a Mayo Clinic cognitive neurologist.
In other words, the same lifestyle choices that reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer also can reduce your risk of cognitive decline. To understand why, it helps to know a little about the physiology of the brain.
The brain-body connection
You might have heard that Alzheimer’s disease — a brain disorder that leads to dementia — is caused, in part, by the buildup of beta-amyloid plaques and twisted tau proteins in the brain. While technically true, other brain changes also are likely involved, says Dr. Woodruff.
“When scientists look at the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease after they’ve died, they find more than just plaques and tangles,” he says.
They often find a buildup of fats, cholesterol and other substances in the vessels that supply blood to the brain.
They also discover evidence of microscopic strokes — also called microinfarctions. Unlike major strokes that bring on noticeable symptoms like facial drooping, microscopic strokes are silent. People are unaware of them. However, as people experience more and more of them, they can starve brain tissue of oxygen and nutrition. If enough microvascular changes occur, there may be symptoms like slowed thinking and trouble concentrating.
“Your brain, as with every other organ in your body, depends on your cardiovascular system,” says Dr. Woodruff.
This is why it’s so important to care for your heart and blood vessels, he says.
Read more: Vascular dementia
Can lifestyle choices prevent cognitive decline?
Thanks to this connection between vascular health and brain health, what benefits your heart also protects your brain. To get these benefits:
Manage heart disease risk factors.
Treat elevated blood sugar, high blood pressure and undesirable cholesterol levels. Don’t use tobacco products. Keep your weight in the healthy range. “Treat all of those general medical conditions. The earlier you address them, the better the benefit is for your brain,” says Dr. Woodruff.
Follow a heart-healthy diet.
The Mediterranean diet is the most extensively studied nutritional approach for brain and overall health. Its emphasis on minimally processed whole foods and fruits and vegetables may improve brain health by helping to keep body fat and chronic inflammation in check. The Mayo Clinic diet takes a similar approach to establishing a healthy-eating lifestyle.
Read more: What is the Mediterranean diet?
Get enough sleep.
People who get less than six hours of sleep during their 50s and 60s are 30% more likely to be diagnosed with dementia decades later, according to a study of nearly 8,000 people. During sleep, the brain flushes away toxins, including the beta amyloid and tau proteins mentioned earlier, another study found. When you don’t sleep enough, you cut this process short. And poor sleep can also increase your risk of other diseases that can impact cognition, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
Read more: How can quality sleep impact lifespan?
Maintain social connections.
Social connections are thought to benefit the brain in many ways. Research suggests that social engagement triggers the release of chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine, which improve mood and outlook. And social connections may help to spur the growth of new connections between nerve cells.
Treat hearing and vision loss.
If you can’t see and hear what’s going on around you, you’ll find it more difficult to communicate and remain social. “Those sensory functions are integral to how we think and interact with the world,” says Dr. Woodruff. “If you don’t see or hear it, then you can’t encode and remember it.” This is part of the reason why preserving your hearing and eyesight is so important. So talk with your healthcare professional about whether hearing aids, corrective lenses or other strategies may be helpful.
Avoid chronic use of sedating medications.
Some of the medicines used to treat pain, insomnia and other conditions can dull thinking, slow reaction time and make you feel sleepy. If you’re not sure of the side effects of the medications you take regularly, talk with your healthcare professional, says Dr. Woodruff. “A health professional can look at what’s on your medication list and suggest alternatives,” he says.
Does exercise help the brain?
In people who exercise regularly, the lining of blood vessels remains smooth and slippery, making it harder for clots to form, finds research.
Exercise also stimulates the release of a protective molecule called brain-derived neurotrophic growth factor (BDNF). This substance works like fertilizer to protect existing brain cells and help create new ones.
Finally, regular exercise promotes other brain-healthy habits, like improved sleep and reduced stress.
That’s likely why a study of 128,925 adults determined that rates of cognitive decline were twice as common in sedentary people who didn’t exercise much, if at all.
The best type, intensity and duration of exercise for your brain is yet to be sorted out, says Dr. Woodruff. For overall physical health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes of moderate cardiovascular activity weekly and two weekly strength training sessions. However, if you can’t do that much, know that any exercise is better than none, says Dr. Woodruff.
Can I exercise my brain?
Yes, you can exercise your brain, but not necessarily in the ways you might assume.
When you have difficulty learning something new, your brain builds new connections between nerve cells. If you continually learn new skills and information over time, experts believe that these networks of nerve cell connections create what’s called a cognitive reserve. The concept of cognitive reserve is a lot like a bank account. The greater your reserve (savings), the more you can stand to lose without ending up in the red.
“Cognitive reserve doesn’t mean you’re immune,” says Dr. Woodruff. “But it buys you some cushion against a neurodegenerative problem.”
Over the years, people have made “brain exercise” synonymous with doing crossword puzzles and brain games. While cognitively stimulating, those activities do not necessarily translate to daily life. You might, for example, get really good at coming up with eight-letter words that start with Z. However, that skill won’t necessarily help you remember your appointments, pay attention to a conversation or know not to click on a scam e-mail link telling you to claim a prize for a contest you didn’t enter.
To be clear, brain teasers and games aren’t bad for you. If you love them, keep doing them, says Dr. Woodruff.
“Keep your mind active, but find something that you like doing and find enjoyable. Otherwise, you’ll just go through the motions,” he says.
How to stimulate your brain
The best brain stimulation recipe varies from one person to another. As long as you choose activities that take you slightly outside of your comfort zone, you’re giving your brain a workout. Consider these brain-stimulating possibilities:
- Play cards or board games, especially if they’re unfamiliar to you.
- Learn a new language, musical instrument or skill.
- Knit a complicated pattern.
- Try a new recipe.
- Take up a new art or craft.
- Visit a new vacation spot.
- Plan a dinner party.
- Sign up for a lifelong learning class about astronomy or another new-to-you topic.
You might notice that the word “new” appears in most of the above examples. That’s key because novel experiences help stimulate the growth of new brain connections. Ideally, challenge your brain in many ways and continually change it up, says Dr. Woodruff.
When is it too late to protect brain health?
As long as you’re still alive, it’s not too late to slow cognitive decline, says Dr. Woodruff.
Some people with severe cognitive impairment may need support, he says. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try. “I tell all my patients, regardless of the severity of their cognitive decline, to take care of their overall health. They are still living in that body, so it’s still good to take care of it.”
Mayo Clinic on Healthy Aging
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