6 Anti-Aging Tips to Keep Your Brain Young
Keep your brain in tip-top shape with these expert tips
While there are many things you can do to stay healthy as you age, like eating right and exercising more to help prevent heart disease or other chronic conditions, it can feel harder to know what to do to preserve your memory. However, there are steps you can take to keep your brain young, too. Here are six things you can do that specifically may help your brain.
Move your body
Quick—what’s the number one thing you can do for your brain’s health? Differential calculus, you say? Chess? Chaos theory? Nope, the best brain sharpener may be … sneakers? Yup. Once they’re on your feet, you can pump up your heart rate. “The best advice I can give to keep your brain healthy and young is aerobic exercise,” says Donald Stuss, PhD, a neuropsychologist and director of the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto. “I would suggest a combined program of aerobics and weight training. Studies show the best outcomes for those engaged in both types of exercise,” adds Mark McDaniel, PhD, professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis.
As we age, our brain cells, or neurons, lose the tree-branch-like connections between them. These connections, or synapses, are essential to thought. Quite literally, over time, our brains lose their heft. Perhaps the most striking brain research today is the strong evidence we now have that “exercise may forestall some kinds of mental decline,” notes McDaniel. It may even restore memory.
A preeminent exercise and brain-health researcher is Arthur Kramer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In a dozen studies over the past few years, with titles such as “Aerobic Fitness Reduces Brain Tissue Loss in Aging Humans,” Kramer and his colleagues have made two critical findings: Fit people have sharper brains, and people who are out of shape, but then get into shape, sharpen up their brains. This second finding is vital. It seems that working out makes you smarter, and it does so, Kramer notes, at all stages of life.
Feed your brain
Another path to a better brain is through your stomach. We’ve all heard about antioxidants as cancer fighters. Eating foods that contain these molecules, which neutralize harmful free radicals, may be especially good for your brain too. Free radicals may break down the neurons in our brains. Many colorful fruits and vegetables are packed with antioxidants, as are some beans, whole grains, nuts, and spices. (Here are the other antioxidant-rich foods you should be eating.)
More important, though, is overall nutrition. In concert with a good workout routine, you should eat right to try to avoid diseases such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and high cholesterol, which all make life tough on your brain, says Carol Greenwood, PhD, a geriatric research scientist at the University of Toronto.
The same weight that burdens your legs on the stairs also burdens your brain for the witty reply or quick problem-solving. The best things you can eat for your body, Greenwood notes, are also the best things you can eat for your brain. Check out these other brain-healthy foods that could help make you smarter.
Use your brain
Sorry to say, our brains naturally start slowing down at the cruelly young age of 30 (yes, 30). It used to be thought that this couldn’t be helped, but people of any age could train their brains to be faster and, in effect, younger. “Your brain is a learning machine,” says Michael Merzenich, PhD, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco. Given the right tools, we can train our brains to act like they did when we were younger. All that’s required is dedicated practice: exercises for the mind.
Merzenich has developed a computer-based training regimen to speed up how the brain processes information, BrainHQ. Since much of the data we receive comes through speech, the Brain Fitness Program works with language and hearing to improve both speed and accuracy. Over the course of your training, the program starts asking you to distinguish sounds (between “dog” and “bog,” for instance) at an increasingly faster rate. It’s a bit like a tennis instructor, says Merzenich, shooting balls at you faster and faster over the course of the summer to keep you challenged. Though you may have started out slow, by Labor Day you’re pretty nimble.
Similarly, Nintendo was inspired by the research of a Japanese doctor to develop a handheld game called Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day, which has sold more than two million copies in Japan. No software out there has yet been approved by the FDA as a treatment for cognitive impairment, but some studies suggest that programs like Merzenich’s or other brain games may improve memory, or even reduce the risk of dementia. The biggest finding in brain research in the last ten years is that the brain at any age is highly adaptable, or “plastic,” as neurologists put it. If you ask your brain to learn, it will learn. And it may speed up in the process.
To keep your brain young and supple, you can do one of a million new activities that challenge and excite you: playing Ping-Pong or contract bridge, doing jigsaw puzzles, learning a new language or the tango, taking accordion lessons, building a kit airplane, mastering bonsai technique, discovering the subtleties of beer-brewing and, sure, relearning differential calculus.
“Anything that closely engages your focus and is strongly rewarding,” says Merzenich, will kick your brain into learning mode and necessarily notch it up. For his part, Merzenich, 64, has “4,000 hobbies,” including a wood shop and a vineyard. Give one of these weird brain exercises a try, too.
So you may be saying to yourself, I have to sign up right now for Swahili and calculus and accordion lessons before my brain withers away? Stop! Breathe. Relax. Good.
While challenging your brain is very important, remaining calm is equally so. In a paper on the brain and stress, Jeansok Kim of the University of Washington asserts, in no uncertain terms, that traumatic stress is bad for your brain cells. Stress can “disturb cognitive processes such as learning and memory, and consequently limit the quality of human life,” writes Kim.
One example is a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is a primary place of memory formation, but which can be seriously debilitated by chronic stress. Of course, physical exercise is always a great de-stressor, as are calmer activities like yoga and meditation. And when you line up your mental calisthenics (your Swahili and swing lessons), make sure you can stay loose and have fun.
Give your brain a rest
Perhaps the most extreme example of the mental power of staying calm is the creative benefit of sleep. Next time you’re working on a complex problem, whether it be a calculus proof or choosing the right car for your family, it really pays to “sleep on it.”
In a study involving a video game, researchers found that people who took a nap were twice as likely to solve the puzzle in the game in comparison to those who stayed awake. The theory is that the sleeping brain is vastly capable of synthesizing complex information.
Laugh a little
Humor stimulates the parts of our brain that use the “feel good” chemical messenger dopamine. In fact, laughter is pleasurable, perhaps even “addictive,” to the brain. But can humor make us smarter? The jury is still out and more studies are needed, but the initial results are encouraging. One study found that humor could improve short term memory. The study compared people who watched a funny video to those who sat without any distractions and tested their memory. People who watched the funny video not only scored better on the memory test, but as a bonus, they had less of the stress hormone cortisol. (Here are some anti-aging secrets that may help you add healthy years to your life.)
- Donald Stuss, PhD, a neuropsychologist and director of the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto
- Mark McDaniel, PhD, professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis
- Arthur Kramer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
- Carol Greenwood, PhD, a geriatric research scientist at the University of Toronto
- Michael Merzenich, PhD, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco
- PNAS: "Relaxed genetic control of cortical organization in human brains compared with chimpanzees"
- The Journal of the American Geriatric Society: "Ten-Year Effects of the ACTIVE Cognitive Training Trial on Cognition and Everyday Functioning in Older Adults"
- International Journal of Neuropharmacology: "Cognitive Training Using a Novel Memory Game on an iPad in Patients with Amnestic Mild Cognitive Impairment (aMCI)"
- National Institutes of Health: "Effects of Stress on Hippocampal Functioning Kim, Jeansok John University of Washington, Seattle, WA, United States"
- Advances in Mind-Body Medicine: "The effect of humor on short-term memory in older adults: a new component for whole-person wellness."
- PLOS One: "After Being Challenged by a Video Game Problem, Sleep Increases the Chance to Solve It"
- Neuropsychopharmacology: "Stress Effects on Neuronal Structure: Hippocampus, Amygdala, and Prefrontal Cortex"