10 Healthy Habits That Will Keep Your Mind Sharp
From exercise to sleep to healthy eating, the choices you make every day can help prevent dementia and keep your brain sharp.
Thinking about brain health
Keeping mentally sharp is top of mind for many people—particularly as you get older. Almost half of those ages 50 to 64 are concerned about their brain health and report worrying about memory loss and dementia, according to the University of Michigan’s National Poll on Healthy Aging. But despite brain health being a top concern, researchers found that people were unsure about the best way to protect their minds. While nearly three-quarters of those surveyed were taking supplements or solving puzzles, most had not talked with their doctors about more effective ways to prevent cognitive decline. So we did it for you. Here’s what experts recommend.
You love avocados and salmon
Don’t fear eating fat. If you want a healthy brain, load up your plate with nuts, salmon, and avocados. Eating a diet rich in healthy fats—particularly a type called medium-chain fatty acids—can protect your brain as you age, keeping your mind sharp and even delaying the onset of cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s, according to a study published in Cell Metabolism. “Diet can play a significant role in your brain health,” says David A. Merrill, MD, PhD, psychiatrist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, director of the Brain Health Center at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, California, and professor emeritus of psychiatry at UC Berkeley. Here are more foods that will help with brain health.
You never miss date night
Forget the stereotype of spouses driving each other crazy. A happy marriage improves brain health and memory, according to a study published in the BMJ. Researchers found that men and women who are married have a 43 percent lower chance of developing dementia. However it isn’t necessarily the actual marriage that is so helpful. It’s more likely that having a close partner helps keep your brain active and agile while reducing stress, says Fran Walfish, PhD, a relationship psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, California, and author of The Self-Aware Parent. Check out these other ways marriage affects your health.
You enjoy gardening
Gardening may be one of the healthiest things you can do. But it isn’t just a good workout for your body, it’s also exercise for your brain, according to research published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. Scientists found that getting outside and working in the soil protects cognitive health by increasing brain volume and gray matter. It was also associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease. No green thumb? Participating in any type of hobby you enjoy is a great way to keep your mind sharp, Dr. Merrill says.
You’re a zen master
“Meditation is a simple and effective way to reduce stress and improve your brain function,” says Catherine Loveday, PhD, a psychologist specializing in the neuropsychology of memory, a professor of psychology at the University of Westminster in London, England, and author of the book The Secret World of the Brain. Doing a daily meditation significantly reduced stress, improved memory, and increased ability to focus, according to a meta-analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine. Meditation may also help your brain by better teaching you how to control your mind and thought processes, she adds. (Here are 10 ways to sneak meditation into your life.)
You like to learn new things
Seniors who spend time playing any type of brain game using an app or a computer better remembered daily events and how to perform simple tasks than those in other groups who did activities that didn’t involve learning new skills, such as watching movies or socializing with others, according to a meta-analysis in the journal The Gerontologist. In the majority of studies examined, brain gaming seemed to improve at least one aspect of cognition. It’s not just the gaming that improved participants’ thinking, but the process of actively learning something new, Loveday says. Try it yourself instead of sticking with what you already know. (Here’s what you can do later in life to boost your brain power.)
You love a good puzzle
Crossword, Sudoku, word search, jigsaw, and other types of puzzles aren’t just fun, they’re good for your brain, Loveday says. People who regularly play number and word puzzle games showed improved concentration, memory, problem solving, and reasoning skills, according to two studies, both published in International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. Researchers suggest complex brainteasers, which involve planning and readjusting strategies, might help improve memory. Here are free brain games to try.
You keep stress in check
“Stress is a killer, both for your body and your brain,” Dr. Merrill says. Short-term stress can break your focus but over the long-term stress can have serious cognitive impacts, reducing concentration, learning, and memory, according to research published in Nature. Thankfully these changes aren’t permanent and taking a few minutes each day to reduce your stress will improve your cognitive abilities, he explains.
You cut back on sugar
Want to do well giving your big presentation at work? Skip the doughnut for breakfast. Sugary treats drain your brain, Dr. Merrill says. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found a significant link between high blood sugar and dementia. A separate study published in the Journal of Neurology found that even people whose blood sugar was on the higher end of “normal” still showed memory loss and cognitive impairment compared to their less sugared-up counterparts. When they looked at brain scans of the participants, the scientists found shrinkage in the hippocampus and the amygdala—areas of the brain associated with memory and cognitive function. So swap the sugar for one of these brain-healthy foods instead.
You get the sleep you need
The physical process of memory storage in the brain depends on sleep, so don’t skimp on it, says Loveday. People who got a good night’s sleep did better on tests that measured both working memory and long-term memory, according to a study published in PLoS One. “A good night’s sleep is vital,” Loveday says. “Numerous experiments have shown that a lot of memory storage occurs while we sleep.” Use these 7 morning brain boosters to keep your mind sharp throughout the day!
You mix up your exercise
Exercise is one of the best things you can do to protect your brain health. “Anything that is good for the heart will also be good for the brain,” Dr. Merrill says. But benefits may go beyond improved blood flow and oxygenation. People who did any type of exercise—including walking, lifting weights, yoga, or taking a fitness class—had sharper memories, faster recall, could better retain things they learned, and had better emotional recall than their couch-potato peers, according to a study published in Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences. Different types of exercises have different brain benefits, so try to get both endurance and weight training into your routine, Dr. Merrill says. Check out these 50 fascinating facts about your brain that will blow your mind.
- AARP: “Americans Nearing Senior Years Worry About Developing Dementia”
- University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging
- David A. Merrill, MD, PhD, psychiatrist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, director of the Brain Health Center at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, California, and professor emeritus of psychiatry at UC Berkeley
- Cell Metabolism: “A High-Fat Diet and NAD+ Activate Sirt1 to Rescue Premature Aging in Cockayne Syndrome”
- The BMJ: “Marriage and risk of dementia: systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies”
- Fran Walfish, PhD, a relationship psychotherapist in Beverly Hills, California, and author of The Self-Aware Parent
- Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease: “Longitudinal Relationships between Caloric Expenditure and Gray Matter in the Cardiovascular Health Study”
- Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences: “Physical Activity, Brain Volume, and Dementia Risk: The Framingham Study”
- Nature: “Learning and memory under stress”
- The Gerontologist: “Nonimmersive Brain Gaming for Older Adults With Cognitive Impairment: A Scoping Review “
- International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry: “The relationship between the frequency of number‐puzzle use and baseline cognitive function in a large online sample of adults aged 50 and over”
- International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. “An online investigation of the relationship between the frequency of word puzzle use and cognitive function in a large sample of older adults”
- Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) - Molecular Basis of Disease: “Neuroprotective action of resveratrol”
- The New England Journal of Medicine: “Glucose Levels and Risk of Dementia”
- Journal of Neurology: “High But Normal Blood Sugar Levels May Have a Negative Effect on Memory”
- Plos One: “Sleep Improves Memory: The Effect of Sleep on Long Term Memory in Early Adolescence”
- Catherine Loveday, PhD, a psychologist specializing in the neuropsychology of memory, a professor of psychology at the University of Westminster in London, England, and author of the book The Secret World of the Brain
- Frontiers in Physiology: “Ibuprofen Treatment Reduces the Neuroinflammatory Response and Associated Neuronal and White Matter Impairment in the Growth Restricted Newborn”
- JAMA Internal Medicine: “Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis”