Your brain plays a critical role in your overall health, but how often do you think about taking good care of it? Research shows that you really can have an impact on your brain health with the lifestyle choices you make — from what you eat, to how you socialize to how much exercise and sleep you get or how you deal with stress. Learn how to protect and even boost your brain with nine ways to take care of your cognitive health.
As with the rest of our body, the brain shrinks as we age. Practicing meditation may help fend off the age-related decline. A small study shows that longtime meditation devotees maintained more gray matter as they got older and had stronger neural connections. These networks are essential in allowing the brain to function and communicate. Getting into a daily meditation routine could help keep your brain young and nimble well into your golden years. Need help getting started? Download Cleveland Clinic’s guided meditation app to your iPhone now.
2. Slim down
Feel like your mind is a little sluggish these days? The number on your scale could be the reason why other numbers — like your best friend’s phone number — escape you. A study being published in the journal Surgery for Obesity and Related Diseases found that candidates for weight-loss surgery were consistently fuzzy when it came to recalling certain details. Twelve weeks after surgery, however, their memory, concentration and problem-solving abilities had all improved. This isn’t the first study to link weight issues with senior moments. Past research shows that midlife obesity is associated with a higher risk of cognitive decline and dementia in old age. The good news is, this study indicates that it’s highly reversible. All you have to do is jog your memory — literally. Regular exercise can help you slim down and boost brain function simultaneously. So lace up your walking shoes and take a brisk walk down memory lane.
3. Eat your Omega-3s
Cookies or fruit? Steak or fish? The foods you choose on a daily basis impact whether your brain will stay sharp as you age. Research in the journal Neurology shows that nutrition may be just as important as other health factors in protecting your brain from Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers found that seniors whose blood had high levels of nutrients found in fish, fruits, nuts and leafy greens were less likely to suffer from memory problems and brain shrinkage — an early indictor of Alzheimer’s — than those who had low levels of the nutrients. Making the right choices every day may help whittle down your chances of brain disease as you get older. Steer clear of processed foods that contain trans fat, and fill up on fish that’s full of heart-healthy omega-3s.
4. Pump up your heart
Want to keep your marbles in prime working order now and into the future? Follow the immortal advice of James Brown and “get up offa that thing”: Regular cardio exercise can help your brain work better, according to two University of Illinois studies. In a study of older people, researchers found that those who regularly engaged in aerobic exercise experienced significant increases in brain matter, while those who did only stretching exercises did not. And in a study of students, those who ran on a treadmill performed better on a memory test than students who did no exercise or who just lifted weights. Pair these cognitive benefits with the stress-reducing and heart-protecting benefits of cardio exercise and you’ve got the perfect motivation for regularly carving time out of your schedule to get moving.
5. Add weights
You probably already knew that strength, or resistance, training can help build muscles and stronger bones. But did you know it can also boost brain power? According to a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, women who added one to two hours of weight training to their weekly workout improved their focus, decision-making skills and ability to resolve conflicts by 11 percent just one year later. Women whose workouts did not include lifting weights showed a slight mental decline. Try these beginner strength-training exercises and learn about the other benefits of building stronger muscles.
6. Socialize often
What’s the worst thing you can do for your brain as you get older? Become a hermit. According to a study in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, which tracked 1,138 elderly adults for five years, the most socially active seniors had just one-quarter the amount of cognitive decline as those who were the least social. Visiting friends, going to church, spending time with neighbors and volunteering are all great ways to get active in your community. Because exercise can also help stave off memory problems, joining a group exercise class may offer extra brain-boosting credit. Ask about tai chi or ballroom dancing classes at your local senior center.
7. Take a walk
Our stature isn’t the only thing that shrinks as we get older. Our brains do too. As you would probably expect, less gray matter equals more forgotten names and misplaced keys. Cognitive decline isn’t inevitable, though. A study in the journal Neurology shows that walking at least six miles a week may help prevent brain shrinkage and memory loss. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh followed 300 senior citizens for 13 years and found that those who walked the most cut their risk of dementia in half, compared with those who walked the least. At the end of the study, those who logged the most miles also had the most gray matter. That doesn’t mean you have to walk to the end of the earth to reduce your risk of memory problems, though. The researchers found that six miles a week was enough to protect against age-related decline.
8. Talk hands-free
Do they or don’t they? When it comes to cell phones and brain cancer, the World Health Organization (WHO) is saying “maybe.” After reviewing dozens of studies on the ubiquitous devices and brain cancer, the WHO has classified cell phones as being “possibly carcinogenic.” That means there’s enough evidence to warrant concern, but the information is not conclusive. Also in the “possibly carcinogenic” category: the banned pesticide DDT and gasoline engine exhaust. If you wish to play it safe and limit your exposure to cell phone radiation, limit your time on your wireless phone. When you do talk on your cell, wear a hands-free headset. At bedtime, you may also want to turn your phone off or put it in “airplane mode” if you keep it on your nightstand by your head while you sleep.
Can’t seem to remember anything anyone tells you? Grab a pen and start doodling. Engaging in this mindless act while listening to someone talk can actually help you recall the information later. A small study in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology found that people who were given the task of doodling while listening to a dull phone message had a 29 percent better recollection, compared with those who didn’t doodle. The researchers believe that this simple act helps keep people’s minds from wandering so they can pay better attention to what is being said. So the next time you want to remember important information, grab a pen and start scribbling.