Your heart may pump blood through your body, keeping you alive, but the brain is what makes you uniquely you. As we age, our brains get older too and will decrease in size and function. By taking action now, you can reduce your risk factors for more rapid aging. Healthy habits can also lower your risk of mental health problems, stroke and dementia.
- Exercise Regularly
Working out increases blood flow to your brain and can boost the size of your hippocampus, which shrinks as you age. Getting some form of movement for 30 minutes a day can drastically improve your memory and cognition.
Studies have shown benefits from most types of exercise, including aerobics, weight training, yoga, pilates, tai chi and dancing. If you don’t have the time or ability to complete a full workout, start small and break your movement into chunks throughout the day.
- Schedule Yearly Exams
Yearly check-ups with your primary care doctor can catch any number of health-related issues. During your appointment, you may undergo a brief neurological exam to assess your balance, mental stability, muscle strength and reflexes. Any problems with these signs or your vitals would tip your provider off to a more significant problem and hopefully get you the early intervention you need.
- Watch Cardiovascular Health
Heart conditions can negatively impact brain health. High blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar are risk factors for dementia and other cognitive problems associated with aging. Also, blood clots keep oxygen from getting to parts of the brain and can cause a stroke, which can lead to permanent damage or death.
Regular checkups with your primary care physician and cardiologist can help you gain control over cardiovascular problems.
- Get Quality Sleep
One of the best things you can do for your brain is to give it time to repair itself. While you sleep, your brain clears out toxins that can cause Alzheimer’s and dementia. It also converts short-term memories into long-term and clears out any unnecessary information. Getting 7-9 consecutive hours of sleep at night also improves cognition, focus and mood.
To get the best night’s sleep, don’t eat stimulating foods within a few hours of bedtime, turn off electronics an hour before bed and have a consistent nighttime routine designed to help you wind down and go to bed at the same time each night.
- Quit Smoking
Smoking negatively affects many of your body’s systems, including your brain. Smokers are more likely to suffer a stroke, dementia and cancer and tend to have more rapid age-related brain volume loss.
The good news is quitting can reverse these adverse effects. Within 5-15 years, most of the increased risks level out with nonsmokers. Stopping this habit as soon as possible limits the potential for severe and lasting health problems.
- Protect Your Head
Accidents happen, which is why you need to take extra safety precautions. Head trauma doesn’t even have to cause a concussion to be detrimental to your overall brain health. If you’re in an accident, doctors will perform a diagnostic to check your mental capabilities. Taking a little extra time to buckle your seatbelt or put on a helmet can help you prevent serious head injury and loss of brain function.
Early signs of brain injury include blurred vision, fatigue, nausea, confusion and problems with balance and coordination. Repeat head injuries worsen these problems and can lead to long-term brain problems, including impaired cognition and memory loss.
- Limit Alcohol Intake
Compulsive or binge drinking can lead to severe brain health problems. Heavy alcohol consumption changes the brain’s chemistry almost immediately, with slurred speech, decreasing coordination, slow reflexes and lowered inhibitions.
Over time, the chemical changes add up and cause permanent brain damage leading to stroke, poor blood flow to the brain, decreased brain volume, memory problems and mental health issues.
- Eat Brain-Healthy Foods
Studies have shown following the Mediterranean diet correlates with a lowered risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. This way of eating focuses on whole foods, lean meats, healthy fats and plenty of seafood. Healthy fats are a key ingredient for brain health, improving cellular function and keeping it younger for longer. Extra-virgin olive oil, walnuts and fatty fish are just a few great choices.
Foods rich in antioxidants help fight inflammation and improve brain health. Some powerhouse options include blueberries, pumpkin seeds, broccoli and dark chocolate.
- Learn Something New
When learning a new skill or improving an old one, your brain creates new connections between cells. These pathways make it difficult for brain disease to work its way in. Engaging your brain and stimulating it builds “muscles” like weight training for our bodies.
Doing a daily crossword, playing a strategy game and reading are easy ways to get your brain working. Stimulating conversations is another good one. Also, you could pick up a new hobby like cooking, gardening or rock climbing. If you have the resources, learning a new language is highly beneficial.
- Make Time for Friends and Family
Spending time with a close circle of friends and family can help combat depression, which is known to impact the way your brain functions. Also, socializing stimulates blood flow to different areas of the brain. Chatting with friends could keep your mind young and strong.
Simply talking to and seeing a loved one can help improve your mental and brain health. However, if you want to get the largest benefit, combine socialization with an activity to enhance your brain’s strength. To meet new people, you could join a club or organization that matches your interests or spend some time volunteering.
- Manage Mental Health
Your mental health can affect your daily life and your long-term brain health. Everyone deals with stress from time to time, but chronic stress leads to inflammation that can cause permanent brain damage. Combat this by seeing a doctor or therapist in combination with meditation, journaling, yoga and slow outdoor walks.
Depression and anxiety literally change the size of parts of your brain. Depression alone causes the hippocampus to get smaller, which reduces your ability to remember things clearly. Prolonged untreated depression is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s. Depression and anxiety together increase the size of the amygdala, which is responsible for your fight or flight response and emotions, making you more likely to experience panic attacks and other panic disorders.