15 New Year’s Resolutions For Your Brain
Boost your brain health in the new year with these 15 physical and mental changes for your brain.
Many people decide to center their New Year’s resolutions on their bodies, such as healthy eating, exercise, or weight loss. Yet, there’s one part of the body that’s important, but often overlooked—the brain. Boosting your brain health can improve its function by enhancing concentration and memory, lowering your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, as well as promoting mental health through decreasing chronic stress, increasing feelings of well-being, and warding off depression.
There’s growing evidence that the brain stays “plastic,” or is able to learn new tasks and take on new challenges, throughout life, according to the National Institute on Aging. It’s one of the amazing facts about the brain that will blow your mind. In a 2015 study in The Lancet, researchers found that interventions such as diet, exercise, and brain training actually helped slow cognitive decline.
This new year, adapt these brain-friendly techniques to boost your brain health and stick to your New Year’s resolutions.
Take an aerobic exercise class
Although the exact reason for the link isn’t clear, studies show that exercise does appear to improve cognitive function; one 2018 review showed aerobic exercise in particular was linked to a boost in brain function in adults at risk or diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. “Aerobic exercise has been shown in multiple studies to be one of the best ways to improve brain health,” says Andrew E. Budson, MD, a professor of neurology at Boston University. “Aerobic exercise releases growth factors in the brain that actually help to grow new brain cells. In one study [in NeuroImage] of older adults aged 55 to 80, exercise increased the size of the hippocampus [a brain region important for memory] in as little as six months. And the increase in size correlated directly with the improved fitness of participants, and with their improved memory performance.”
Go for more walks
If you think intense aerobic exercise is too ambitious right now, just start moving—even if it’s just taking walks every day. “Any physical exercise or activity is very beneficial to brain health,” says Douglas Scharre, MD, director of the division of cognitive neurology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Physical exercise activates many areas of the brain by planning processes, figuring out when to stop or slow down or rest, knowing that you need to alter what you are doing due to pain or discomfort, or just being out of breath. The brain also controls and tells the muscles when to move and how to move. So physical activity is a wonderful brain activity.” It’s one of the top 10 tips for a healthy brain.
Plus, “taking a walk or getting out into nature has the added benefit of helping us take a break from our busy routine and recharge our brains,” says Stacy Vernon, MS, LPC, NCC, a clinician with the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas. Make your walk a daily family routine: One 2018 study in Environmental Health Perspectives found that exposure to green spaces was associated with better brain development and cognitive function in a subcohort of 253 school children.
Take on a new hobby
There are four characteristics of a brain-healthy activity: It presents variety, novelty, challenge, and is personally rewarding, according to Vernon. So, what happens if you do the same activity, such as crossword puzzles, every day? “It has been shown that if you practice crossword puzzles or brain games, you get better—at crossword puzzles and brain games,” Dr. Budson says. “If you are doing the same activities again and again, you get better at those activities, but there isn’t evidence that it helps your brain the same way that doing something new does. These activities just do not translate into overall cognitive improvement.”
However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t any activities you can take on that improve your brain. “What’s been shown in many studies is that doing new things is particularly beneficial for your brain,” Dr. Budson says. “The mental activities that have been shown to be beneficial are those that are new, different, those that stretch you in some way—so learn a new hobby, skill, or musical instrument.”
Challenge yourself in your current hobby
But what if you really like crosswords? Try switching things up with different kinds of puzzles to mix in that variety. “Certain activities will stimulate specific parts of the brain,” says Dr. Scharre. “Crossword puzzles will stimulate a bit different area than Sudoku or a jigsaw puzzle. Learning to play the piano will stimulate a different area than reading a book or playing a video game.”
You can also expand on your particular hobby of choice. “If you want to continue to play your current instrument, learn new songs or—to really stretch yourself—learn a whole new style of music, whether it is jazz, classical, or hip-hop,” says Dr. Budson.
Ultimately, to “use it or lose it” when it comes to your brain, it’s important to be invested in what you’re doing. “It’s important to keep motivated because the brain’s health improves when you continue to exercise it regularly,” Vernon says. Still, “with any type of activity, it’s important to occasionally change it up to keep it novel and challenging.” You can also try these 14 weird brain exercises that help you get smarter.
Meditate and be mindful
The physical and psychological health of the brain are one and the same, so for the New Year, take up a practice of mindfulness (living in the moment) or meditation. “We know that meditation and mindfulness practices can improve attention and focus, and help us better regulate our stress response,” Vernon says. “They can even physically strengthen our brains.”
A 2015 study in Frontiers in Psychology found long-term meditators had less decline in gray matter, as seen on brain scans than people who didn’t meditate. “One thing that mindfulness has been proven to do is to help you pay attention, and the more you pay attention the more you are likely to be able to remember information,” says Dr. Budson. “Another benefit of mindfulness is that it can help reduce your anxiety, and anxiety can interfere with your ability to remember.”
Another psychological approach to strengthening your brain can be through starting a gratitude practice in the new year. “Gratitude can create a positive outlook on life, and research has shown that cultivating a positive outlook can inoculate our brains against some of the biological effects of aging,” Vernon says. This is one of the health benefits of gratitude.
Plus, a 2015 study in Psychotherapy Research showed writing letters of gratitude to others improved mental health; other research in Frontiers in Psychology is looking into the physiological and chemical reasons why gratitude seems to improve mental well-being. Start by keeping a gratitude journal, in which you aim to write down something you’re thankful for every day.
In addition, starting such a journal can help you better explore your state of mind. Donna Pincus, PhD, an associate professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Boston University, advises a “regular practice of emotional expression—writing or talking with others about one’s feelings” for brain health.
One of the typical New Year’s Eve resolutions—to eat better—might also benefit brain health as well. (Consider trying these brain-boosting foods that may keep you smart.) “The same diets and lifestyle factors relevant to cardiovascular health are important for [preventing] Alzheimer’s disease—what’s good for your heart is good for your brain,” says Tetyana Rocks, PhD, a researcher at Deakin University School of Medicine in Australia. “A systematic review in 2015 showed strong evidence for a protective effect of the Mediterranean diet.”
This could be because the brain uses a lot of the body’s energy, so it requires quality fuel. “Your brain needs a well-balanced diet—it has to have vitamins to function well,” Dr. Scharre says. So, “a plant-forward diet, such as the Mediterranean diet, which includes seafood, fruits and veggies, beans, nuts, seafood, and some healthy oils, provides the food that your brain craves,” says Joan Salge Blake, EdD, RDN, LDN, a nutrition professor at Boston University.
Try the MIND diet
The Mediterranean diet has also been combined with the DASH diet (dietary approaches to stop hypertension) in the MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH intervention for neurodegenerative delay), which is specifically for the brain. “The MIND diet has been shown to be associated with lower risk [of cognitive decline] over time,” Dr. Rocks says. “The MIND diet is based on whole grains, vegetables, including green leafy vegetables, berries, nuts, beans, and olive oil as the main added fat; with moderate consumption of poultry, fish and red meat.” It differs from the Mediterranean diet in that it sets particular daily and weekly requirements for foods and food groups.
But in particular, enjoy salmon and other fatty fish. “Seafood contains omega-3 fatty acids that are important for brain function, and plant-based foods and healthy oils such as olive oil, provide antioxidants that protect your brain from oxidative stress,” Dr. Blake says. “Oxidative stress [too many free radicals and not enough antioxidants] can feed into cognitive decline.”
Lay off the sugar and fat
Eating healthier also includes cutting back on things in your diet that aren’t as beneficial for your brain. “Less red meat, saturated fats, and processed sugars are better for the brain—many of these foods can lead to elevated cholesterol and [type 2] diabetes that can impact brain health,” says Dr. Scharre. “Moderation in everything you eat is probably healthier.” (These are the worst foods for your brain.)
Dr. Blake agrees: “A diet high in saturated fat is associated with greater cognitive decline,” he says. But why? Research is still emerging, but “healthy and unhealthy dietary intake can change brain function relevant to both cognitive function and decline, and mental health,” Dr. Rocks says. High-fat and high-sugar (soft drinks, sweets, processed cereals, white baked goods) lead to obesity, poor insulin control, [type 2] diabetes, and inflammation associated with poor mental and cognitive health, she says.
Cut down on drinking
You don’t have to quit all together, but another brain health resolution that’s also probably good for you in general is to stop any binge drinking sessions. “The impact of alcohol consumption on Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative disorders is very much a debatable topic in the scientific literature,” Dr. Rocks says. That said, “high alcohol consumption—more than 14 drinks a week for men and more than seven drinks for women—has been linked to an increased risk for the development of Alzheimer’s disease.” Dr. Blake also says that chronically consuming too much alcohol can contribute to memory loss and increased risk of dementia. But, “moderate—one to two drinks per day—drinking of wine, particularly red that is high in polyphenols [antioxidants], may be protective against cognitive decline and dementia,” Dr. Rocks says. (Here are 17 tips for cutting back on alcohol.)
Get better sleep
Like a healthy diet and exercise, getting better sleep is another common New Year’s resolution that has the added benefit of boosting brain health.
“There are at least three reasons that sleep is important for memory and brain health—the first is the obvious one: If you’re tired then you’re not going to be able to pay attention well, and if you cannot pay attention you won’t be able to properly learn new information,” Dr. Budson says. “Second, memories are first stored in the hippocampus and then later—when we sleep—these memories are transferred to other parts of the brain for more permanent storage. If we don’t get a good night’s sleep, this transfer process, often called consolidation, cannot occur, and we won’t be able to remember our memories for a lifetime. Lastly, during the day we all make a bit of beta amyloid—the protein that accumulates in Alzheimer’s disease and can cause plaques. But when we sleep each night the amyloid is cleared away. We need good sleep to allow this clearance to take place.”
Dr. Budson advises getting seven to nine hours of sleep a night, but not using any other sleep pills besides melatonin. (Although any decision you make about sleep medication should be made based on your personal circumstances and advice from your doctor.) In addition, “treat sleep apnea—make sure that your brain is getting enough oxygen,” Dr. Scharre says. Here are some things that can happen to your brain when you don’t get enough sleep.
Manage stress and mental health
Stress can take its toll on the body—and the brain, too. “Too much stress can increase depression, and it can trigger your immune system which in turn can physically harm your brain,” Dr. Scharre says. Although having some stress in life is probably unavoidable, practice techniques for reducing stress so that it does not become chronic and interfere in your daily life, Dr. Pincus says. “At high levels, stress can impact the brain—and increase our risk for various diseases and emotional disorders,” she says. Dr. Pincus advises improving your planning and organizational skills and developing a good daily routine that allows you to feel in control, to decrease stress.
Plus, some of the other resolutions for helping the brain in general, such as exercise, meditation, and sleep, also particularly help stress management and improve mental well-being. “Getting sufficient sleep and having good sleep habits are associated with improved ability to regulate one’s emotions,” says Dr. Pincus. In addition, “aerobic exercise can improve mood, and depression is one cause of memory problems,” says Dr. Budson.
Take that bucket list trip
Could going on vacation actually help your brain? Possibly—and it’s one of the surprising things about your brain we bet you didn’t know. “Vacations and taking breaks from work are probably helpful to your brain,” Dr. Scharre says. “If you are stressed at work, then you need to work on ways to reduce stress—taking breaks or vacations would be one way to do that.” But, “if you love your job and are not stressed, then working normal hours is probably brain-healthy.” In addition to reducing stress, travel may stimulate your brain. “How we interact with the world around us is critical to our brain health,” Vernon says. “We can cultivate our power of observation and connection almost anywhere.”
Make plans with friends
Of course it makes us happier to spend time with loved ones, but a social connection can actually improve our brain health. “Socialization is one activity that seems to stimulate large parts of the brain,” Dr. Scharre says. Emerging evidence from a 2017 study in JAMA Neurology showed that seniors who engaged in social activities had a lower risk of cognitive decline compared with those who didn’t engage in mentally stimulating activities. It’s one of the things you can do to keep your brain sharp and healthy later in life.
“It is very important to build a community of supportive people in one’s life—there is vast literature that indicates the positive effects of social support on both physical and psychological health outcomes,” Dr. Pincus says. “In fact, just having the perception that others will be there for you when you need them can have beneficial effects on many aspects of our health.”
Specifically for the noggin, “social engagement is one of the core components of brain health,” Vernon says. “This includes such things as cultivating compassion, having meaningful interactions, and having someone to turn to during tough times. On the flip side, social isolation has been shown to increase one’s risk for depression and dementia.”
Get off your phone—at least sometimes
When your phone’s nearby, it can be a distraction for your brain and actually reduce cognitive functioning—even if you’re not using it, as a 2017 study in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research found. But Vernon says our modern smartphones, social media, and the internet have both pros and cons for your brain: It all depends on your phone habits. “Devices are not inherently bad for us; it all goes back to how we use them,” she says. “Mindlessly scrolling is detrimental to brain health, whereas connecting with diverse people and ideas through our smartphone is enriching.” If you find yourself constantly distracted, though, make a resolution to reduce your dependence on your phone by turning it off for at least part of the day. Find out more genius habits your 80-year-old brain will thank you for doing today.
- National Institute on Aging: "How the Aging Brain Affects Thinking"
- The Lancet: "A 2 year multidomain intervention of diet, exercise, cognitive training, and vascular risk monitoring versus control to prevent cognitive decline in at-risk elderly people (FINGER): a randomized controlled trial"
- Andrew E. Budson, MD, professor of neurology, Boston University
- NeuroImage: "Effect of aerobic exercise on hippocampal volume in humans: A systematic review and meta-analysis"
- Douglas Scharre, MD, director of the division of cognitive neurology, The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center
- Stacy Vernon, MS, LPC, NCC, clinician, Center for BrainHealth, the University of Texas at Dallas
- Environmental Health Perspectives: "The Association between Lifelong Greenspace Exposure and 3-Dimensional Brain Magnetic Resonance Imaging in Barcelona Schoolchildren"
- The BMJ: "Intellectual engagement and cognitive ability in later life (the 'use it or lose it' conjecture): longitudinal, prospective study"
- Frontiers in Psychology: "Forever Young(er): potential age-defying effects of long-term meditation on gray matter atrophy"
- Psychotherapy Research: "Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial"
- Frontiers in Psychology: "A Potential Role for mu-Opioids in Mediating the Positive Effects of Gratitude"
- Donna Pincus, PhD, associate professor, department of psychological and brain sciences, Boston University
- Tetyana Rocks, PhD, researcher, Deakin University School of Medicine, Australia
- International Journal of Neuroscience: "Alzheimer's disease and diet: a systematic review"
- Joan Salge Blake, EdD, RDN, LDN, nutrition professor, Boston University
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "The MIND Diet"
- JAMA Neurology: "Association Between Mentally Stimulating Activities in Late Life and the Outcome of Incident Mild Cognitive Impairment, With an Analysis of the APOE ε4 Genotype"
- Journal of the Association for Consumer Research: "Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One's Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity"