A rich new area of science is analysing which healthy habits best keep your mind and memory healthy in the 40s and beyond. Kenneth S. Kosik, MD, co-director of the Neuroscience Research Institute at the University of California, has studied which habits most powerfully boost our cognitive function. Here he shares the most up-to-date research from innovative labs plus the best brain-boosting tips from his book Outsmarting Alzheimer’s. These are daily habits of people with impressive memory.
Whether you’re deliberating a chess move or bluffing at cards, you’re also giving the frontal lobe, the area of your brain that handles executive function, a workout. “The frontal lobe is particularly vulnerable to degeneration and the effects of ageing,” says Dr. Kosik. According to a 2014 University of Wisconsin study, older adults who routinely worked on puzzles and played board games had higher brain volume in the area responsible for cognitive functions, including memory, than those who didn’t play games.
Dharma Singh Khalsa, MD, president and medical director of the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation, has spent many years studying the meditative tradition called Kirtan Kriya and has found that daily 12-minute sessions of the practice can improve blood flow to the brain and possibly even increase levels of telomerase, an enzyme that slows cell ageing. The practice is simple: While breathing deeply, chant the Sanskrit words saa, taa, naa, maa (which mean “my divine self”) while moving your thumb to touch your index, middle, ring, and pinkie fingers with each new sound. Like any meditation, it may help to lift anxiety and fatigue.
Scientists surveyed volunteers on seven familiar heart-health factors and tested their cognitive performance at two points over eight years. The results found that the more heart-healthy habits people had, the less cognitive decline they exhibited. A stronger cardiovascular system means a stronger pipeline of nutrients to the brain, says lead author Hannah Gardener, ScD, an epidemiologist in the Department of Neurology at the University of Miami. The seven heart-health ideals to strive for may be familiar (if they seem overwhelming, Gardener points out that “each one helps”): Not smoking; healthy body mass index (under 25); physically active (for at least 150 minutes a week); healthy total cholesterol (under 200 mg/dL); healthy blood pressure (under 120/80 mmHg); healthy blood sugar (under 100 mg/dL); and balanced diet (rich in fruits, veggies, and whole grains; low in sodium and sweets).
As the brain ages, its white matter often develops small lesions because of disrupted blood flow, leading to impaired cognitive function and mobility. Researchers at the University of British Columbia wanted to determine whether strength training might offer protection. Women ages 65 to 75 who already had lesions were divided into three groups: once-a-week strength trainers, twice-a-week strength trainers, and those who did other types of exercise. The results: Women who strength trained twice a week showed significantly less progression of white matter lesions than the other two groups did. Key moves you can try at home (using soup cans for weight): biceps curls, triceps extensions, calf raises, mini squats, mini lunges, and lunge walks; aim for 45 minutes a session.
Exercise benefits the brain by improving vascular health – but newly published research suggests it also combats the chronic neuroinflammation observed in Alzheimer’s, depression and other brain diseases. In such neurological conditions, the inflammation that normally clears tissue damage doesn’t shut off and starts to interfere with communication between neurons. Exercise has proven anti-inflammatory effects against diseases like diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, so that could be why exercise protects brain health as well, says assistant professor Jonathan Little, PhD, in a review article in Brain Research Bulletin. “Any type of moderate-intensity exercise, such as walking, cycling and swimming can have anti-inflammatory effects,” says Little. Aim for about 30 minutes a day.
Although any exercise is good, aerobic workouts may be the best for brain health. A study from Wake Forest School of Medicine showed that the brain volume was higher in elderly people who participated in aerobic exercise than in people who just stretched. The aerobic exercisers also saw their cognitive function improve over a six-month period. “Research shows that aerobic exercise increases blood flow in the hippocampus, the memory region of the brain,” says neuroscientist Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD, founder and chief director of the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas. “This is also the area most affected by Alzheimer’s, so you are strengthening a vulnerable part of the brain.”
The brain relies on connections between neurons to function well; in Alzheimer’s, these connections begin to die off. Doing all you can now to help strengthen your neural connections will help protect your brain as you age. So use any opportunity in your daily routine for critical thought and analysis. “The strongest mental habit is to pursue deeper level thinking,” Dr. Chapman says. “This can happen in your everyday life, for instance abstracting themes from shows you see or books you read. Deeper-level thinking is like push-ups and sit-ups for the brain.” Joining a book club or even discussing last week’s episode of your favourite show with your partner is an excellent place to start.
Another way to keep those neurons strong is to encourage neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to rewire itself and form new connections. Studies have shown that cognitive stimulation actually helps improve brain plasticity. Any new tasks you embark on can help keep your brain active, motivated and inspired. “The brain is quickly jaded on routine and goes to auto-pilot when it gets bored,” Dr. Chapman says. “Doing new things – and improving things you’re already doing – can help your brain gain ground.”
Listening to or playing music can activate the motor cortex (touching a piano key or guitar string), the auditory cortex (hearing the notes you make), and the emotional centre, or limbic system (feeling moved by a beautiful passage). “Circuits and networks are stimulated by these activities, which help keep the brain healthy,” says Dr. Kosik. Older adults who had at least ten years of musical experience did better on cognitive tests, according to a 2011 Emory University study.
Learning lines for a production or an acting class engages the hippocampus, the temporal cortex and the frontal lobe, says Dr. Kosik. In one study, those who went to acting classes twice a week for four weeks boosted their ability to remember words, numbers and short stories. A follow-up study found they improved word fluency by 12 percent and word recall by 19 percent.
When you draw, paint or sculpt, you have to make spatial calculations and focus attention on details, Dr. Kosik says. Engaging in these activities (even doodling has health benefits!) helps protect octogenarians from mild cognitive impairment, according to a 2015 Mayo Clinic study. Also, 60- and 70-year-old art-class participants boosted scores on psychological resilience tests; MRI images showed their synapses had formed new connections.
Research from Rush University found that combining the Mediterranean diet and the heart-healthy DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet is good for your brain. Adhering to the MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay), as it’s called, was found to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s up to 50 percent. “The food you eat provides the fuel for your brain, and the MIND diet produces the best kind of fuel,” Dr. Chapman says. “It includes such things as whole grains, leafy green vegetables, nuts, fish, berries, olive oil, beans, as well as limited amounts of cheese, wine and dark chocolate.”
There has been debate over the role of dietary fat in Alzheimer’s. According to Dr. Chapman, “Fried foods and foods high in saturated fat should be avoided.” We already know these foods aren’t good for your health in general, so that’s another good reason to give them a pass. A high-fat diet can also cause weight gain, which is a risk factor for diabetes – and diabetes, in turn, is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s. Although scientists aren’t sure exactly how diabetes and Alzheimer’s are linked, the Alzheimer’s Association suggests diabetes damages blood vessels in the brain, alters brain chemistry, and contributes to inflammation that harms brain cells.
Scientists are just beginning to understand how the collection of good bacteria in your GI tract, known as the gut microbiome, influences your brain. “Feedback signals from the gut tell the brain about gastric and intestinal motility, gut hormone secretion and gut inflammation,” says Linda Rinaman, PhD, a psychology professor at Florida State University who’s studied the gut-brain connection. Much of the research on the “gut-brain axis” in relation to the development of Alzheimer’s has been observed in rodents. But new studies in humans are also revealing a connection between the type of bacteria in the gut and the likelihood of Alzheimer’s. Although probiotics, which aim to balance your gut bacteria, haven’t yet been proven to protect brain health, it’s may be worth giving them a try – or eating probiotic foods like yogurt or sauerkraut – just in case.
You know what a bad night’s sleep can do to your focus the next day. Over the years, regular sleep deprivation can raise your risk of dementia, suggests research. “During sleep, your brain literally cleans out some of the toxicity that has built up from stress or agitation,” Dr. Chapman says. “Without good sleep, we see increased anxiety and stress. Sleep is restorative, helping you be more mentally energetic and productive. Even a quick nap helps.” Just keep daytime snoozing to about an hour, as longer than an hour and a half may be detrimental to your noggin, according to some studies.
Doctors have long known there’s a connection between depression and Alzheimer’s; now, research is suggesting that depression is actually a risk factor for the disease. In addition, stress and stress hormones in the brain have also been linked with dementia. On the other hand, research has found that a positive attitude about ageing is actually associated with a lesser chance of developing dementia, even in the presence of other risk factors. If you’re depressed, it’s best to get help now. “Positivity always helps, but it’s just as important to embrace mistakes to learn from them and not be stuck,” Dr. Chapman says.
Brain researchers have found that socialising and maintaining friendships can protect against cognitive decline. “One of the most powerful things for brain health is relating to others – a shared sense of community is one of the top three factors associated with brain health as we age,” Dr. Chapman says. “Socialisation also requires some of the most complex cognition because it requires us to constantly negotiate an understanding with those around us. For the brain, it’s like constantly solving a puzzle.” It’s not the number of friends you have, she says, but rather the quality and depth of your connections.
Trying to focus on several things at once puts a strain on the brain and studies have shown it negatively impacts memory, especially as we age. “Multitasking is as toxic to the brain as cigarette smoking is to the lungs, but the effects become apparent much more quickly,” Dr. Chapman says. “Multitasking, which is really the brain constantly switching between tasks, decreases memory function and reduces hippocampal size. It fatigues the system and breaks down your immune system.” All of these things combined make avoiding multitasking the number one thing people should do to maintain and enhance their brain health, she says.
Research has found a high-carb diet loaded with added sugars can muddy your thinking and your memory. You don’t have to be diabetic to have high blood sugar level speed your brain’s cognitive decline, find several studies. “Although the brain relies on sugar for its main source of energy, too much sugar flooding into the brain at once from a high-sugar diet can overload the brain and cause negative effects such as lapses in concentration, learning, and even advanced ageing of the cells,” says certified diabetes educator Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author of 2 Day Diabetes Diet. “By eating a diet low in added sugars, you can help to prevent spikes in blood glucose levels that may cause these damaging effects while making sure the brain still gets the energy it needs to function at its peak.”
Recent research published in The Lancet suggests that having more than three drinks a day for women – more than four a day for men – substantially raises the risk for dementia, and particularly early-onset dementia. “Drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can have a negative impact on the brain – another study found excessive drinking may accelerate memory loss as we age,” Palinski-Wade says. The jury is still out on moderate drinking: Although some research suggests it may be detrimental for your brain, the harm might be balanced by its heart benefits, according to Harvard Medical School. If you do drink alcohol, stick to the recommended one drink a day for women, two for men.
You can get antioxidant compounds called flavonoids in most brightly coloured fruits and vegetables – and they can help keep your brain healthy. “Antioxidants fight against damage to cells caused by free radicals,” explains Palinski-Wade. “When free radicals are present, they can harm cells, including brain cells, causing premature ageing and raising your risk of disease. A high level of antioxidants in your diet can help fight against free radical damage and offer protective benefits to cells.” A study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that women who had a higher consumption of berries had a slower rate of cognitive decline. A daily dose of this one veggie can boost your brain, science says.
Curcurmin, present in the curry spice turmeric, may have some antioxidant properties as well. “The compound curcumin in turmeric can increase brain levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a growth hormone,” Palinski-Wade says. “Since diseases such as depression and Alzheimer’s disease have been linked to declining levels of BDNF, experts theorise that increasing levels this hormone may fight against these diseases of the brain.” One study found older participants who ate plenty of curry did better on problem-solving tests than those who didn’t eat curry.
Coffee appears to be a boon to brain health, according to early research. “The brain benefits from coffee come mainly from caffeine, which stimulates the central nervous system,” says Palinski-Wade. “In moderate amounts, caffeine can enhance focus and concentration. Caffeine may also boost short-term memory.” Plus, antioxidants in coffee may help protect brain cells, she says. Just don’t overdo the java: “Excessive levels of caffeine can suppress the release of serotonin in the brain” over time, which messes with sleep, another important part of brain health, warns Palinski-Wade. “Aim to keep your overall caffeine intake to less than 400 mg [about four cups] per day,” Palinski-Wade says.
Wearing a helmet when bike riding isn’t just to save your life – it’s actually important for your long-term brain health as well. The Alzheimer’s Association notes that head trauma is strongly linked with future risk of Alzheimer’s, and the earlier in life the injury occurs, the greater the chance of dementia later on. Wear a helmet when playing sports, a seat belt when driving, and take measures to prevent falls in your home such as installing non-skid carpets, railings on stairs, and keeping clutter and wires out of trafficked areas.
According to the National Institute on Ageing, a third of people between ages 65 and 74 have hearing loss; nearly half of people 75 and older do. This can have a negative impact on your brain: Recent research reveals that hearing loss increases your risk for cognitive impairment by 24 percent. Doctors don’t know exactly why, but it could have something to do with hearing keeping your brain active; social isolation (a risk factor for Alzheimer’s) caused by hearing loss could also be a factor. But the good news is that those who are treated for hearing loss, such as with hearing aids, may be able to improve their cognitive abilities, as recent studies have found.
While the idea that mobile phone-related emissions could harm your brain seems highly unlikely, the experts at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center still recommend minimising your exposure until scientists know for sure. It may be decades before we learn the true impact of radiofrequency energy on the mind. The hospital advises staying on the safe side by using headphones. Just keep the volume down to help protect your hearing.
You’ve heard that exercise is good for your brain; you may also know that music is good for your brain. Then there’s the fact that socialising keep your mind healthy. Put them all together and what do you get? Dancing! A landmark study in the New England Journal of Medicine found dancing to be one of the top leisure activities in reducing the risk of dementia. Recent research backs this up: Regular dancers had fewer signs of ageing in the brain. Dancing can also improve mood, which benefits the mind; learning and memorising dance routines also presents a healthy challenge to your thinking process.
Speaking a second language from childhood on can protect against dementia. But what if you haven’t already learned a language? Good news: In another study, people gained protection even if they learned the second language as an adult. “Millions of people around the world acquire their second language later in life,” study author Dr. Thomas Bak of the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom told the BBC. “Our study shows that bilingualism, even when acquired in adulthood, may benefit the ageing brain.”
One reason why learning a language might help save your brain is that more education – in and of itself – can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. And it’s never too late to sign up for classes: Higher education leads to the development of new neurons and neural connections in the brain that can make up for age-related cognitive losses. “More education is a protective factor for dementia,” Leon Flicker, director of the Western Australia Centre for Health and Ageing at the University of Western Australia, told the journal Nature. “Virtually every study finds effects; it future-proofs your brain.”
Researchers are looking into the possibility that a type of talk therapy called cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may help prevent Alzheimer’s. CBT can ease depression and improve sleep – two risk factors for dementia. With CBT, you learn how to redirect your brain away from negative or distracting thoughts; experts at Harvard Medical School suggest that the therapy can improve memory. “You’re less likely to be able to pull up information when the brain is focused on something else,” Joel Salinas, MD, a neurologist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, says in Harvard’s Health Letter. “If excess thoughts are like flies around food, then CBT helps swat the flies so you can eat in peace.”
In the same vein of “what’s good for your heart is good for your brain,” dogs can help heal your mind. Having a canine companion can reduce cardiovascular risk – probably because that dog is going to need walks. Pets can also reduce depression, stress and social isolation, all of which are risk factors for dementia. According to Aaron Ritter, MD, a neuropsychiatrist and Director of Clinical Trials at the Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health: “I walk my dogs two times a day for a total of three to five kilometres – having eager and dependent exercise partners ensures that I cannot skip days. The exercise and meaningful companionship help keep me happy and healthy.”
Here’s another way Fido can help your brain – by getting you outdoors. Studies have shown that being in nature can improve your mood, memory and cognitive function. One study even found that the more exposure to nature, the more grey matter (or neural cells) participants’ brains had. Anyone who’s ever felt the need to “clear their head” can attest to the power of the outdoors in recharging thinking.
Laughter really is the best medicine when it comes to your brain health. The act of laughing lowers stress hormones while boosting your mood. In a study of older adults, viewing a funny video boosted scores on memory tests while lowering levels of stress hormones. Study author Gurinder Bains, MD, PhD, of Loma Linda University, notes in a press release that humour could have therapeutic benefits for older people experiencing memory loss.
The meditative motion, the gentle clicking of needles, the relaxing knitting circles – it’s no wonder this craft is a stress-relieving hobby. And research has actually shown that engaging in crafts such as knitting or quilting reduce the chance of developing mild cognitive impairment – by as much as 28 percent, according to a recent study from Mayo Clinic. Plus, the more you do it, the better. “Our team found that persons who performed these activities at least one to two times per week had less cognitive decline than those who engaged in the same activities only two to three times per month or less,” says study author Yonas Geda, MD, a psychiatrist and behavioural neurologist, on Mayo Clinic’s website.
Using a computer was even more effective than crafting in reducing the risk of dementia risk, according to the Mayo Clinic study. Although the authors couldn’t say exactly why, they theorise that computers “require specific technical and manual skills and that these could be the factors that might be associated with a decreased risk of cognitive decline.”
“Even for a person who is at genetic risk for cognitive decline, engaging in [these] activities was beneficial,” study author Janina Krell-Roesch, PhD, said on Mayo Clinic’s website.
Be wary of information overload on the Internet: Trying to comprehend it all is just like multitasking – the brain can’t figure out what’s important, and research shows your mind won’t retain as much. “Our brain doesn’t do very well with too much information – the more you download, the more it shuts the brain down,” Dr. Chapman told Health. So sticking to one long online story is better than skipping around between lots of little tidbits. “It’s better to read one or two good articles… rather than to read 20,” Dr. Chapman says.
Perhaps the best advice for brain health is that you can’t latch onto one thing and expect it to protect you from cognitive decline. Research from Finland suggests that a comprehensive program giving patients guidance on everything from diet and exercise to brain training and the management of metabolic risk factors could better prevent cognitive decline. Compared to people in the control group (who lived life as they normally would), the intervention group scored 83 percent higher on tests of critical thinking, and they could problem solve 150 percent faster.
A healthy lifestyle will protect your brain, so get regular checkups and treat any issues. For example, you may need to take meds for blood pressure or cholesterol, get help for sleep apnoea, or keep diabetes under control. Ongoing research may reveal how personalised prevention plans can help with your current medical issues and your future brain health. “We can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach – different people may take a different road to Alzheimer’s,” study author Richard Isaacson, MD, director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian Hospital, told the journal Nature.
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