We all aspire to age well.
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to remain as healthy and functional as possible — body and mind — as long as possible. While there are no guarantees, you do have a great deal of power to influence this with your choices. When you assert the influence you have, it will benefit you today as well as tomorrow. You see, what you do today largely determines the level at which your mind and body will operate in the future.
This is especially true when it comes to your brain.
According to the World Health Organization, around 55 million people have dementia worldwide. As the proportion of older people in the population is increasing in nearly every country, this number is expected to rise to 78 million by 2030 and 139 million by 2050. Given these projections, brain health needs to be on everyone’s priority list.
Below are important and uncomplicated ways to support cognitive function and keep your brain and mind sharp as you age.
Learning something new is not just fun, it challenges your brain and stimulates the birth of new neurons and connections. Studies have shown that older adults who learned a new skill had more memory improvement than those who only socialized or did less cognitive-related activities.
Learning to speak a new language, playing a musical instrument, mastering a new craft or hobby, going back to school, and traveling all have documented brain benefits. About any activity that forces your brain to stretch, grow, and learn is going to be good for it. Activities that require intense mental focus switch on neuroplasticity, promoting the growth of new synapse connections and leading to strong neural wiring.
You want to mix it up for the best results. While doing the daily crossword puzzle may be fun, it’s not going to do much for your brain after a while because you’re asking your brain to do the same thing over and over. Your brain needs novelty. Computer brain training can harness and direct neuroplasticity and exercise your memory, attention, and other cognitive skills to help keep them in shape.
You may even want to postpone retirement. Research shows that having an intellectually challenging job helps to preserve thinking skills and memory as you age.
You might not be familiar with negative learning, but you are probably doing it.
Neuroplasticity is the ability of your brain to change its structure and function based on your life experiences and repeated behaviors, emotions, and thoughts. This ability makes your brain amazingly resilient, but it also makes it vulnerable to outside and internal, usually unconscious, influences. This means that, unknowingly, in many ways, you could be contributing to your brain’s decline or “negative learning.”
In order to minimize negative learning, you need to stop or drastically minimize behaviors contributing to your neurological decline. In addition to the obvious and well-known habits, like drugs, alcohol, an unhealthy diet, and a sedentary lifestyle, constructing your daily life to require minimal effort where you don’t ask your brain to think or pay serious attention, takes it offline a little more each day.
Negative learning can happen at any age — especially with technology doing so much of the brain work for us these days. Using a GPS consistently, staring straight ahead at a screen for hours a day, texting and not talking to people face-to-face, and many more habits of the modern lifestyle can contribute to undesirable brain changes.
Humans are social animals who need contact with one another. Your brain needs it. In fact, the strongest predictor of a species’ brain size is the size of its social group. You have that big brain in your head in order to socialize. Your brain’s top concern is always your survival. There’s safety in numbers. That’s why your brain likes to be part of a group and feels stressed when it’s not. Whether it’s fish or humans, animals that find themselves on the periphery of their social groups are the ones most at risk from predators. Being in that type of danger causes the brain to stay in self-preservation mode — always stressed and on alert.
Participating in social activities and engaging in conversations with others are good brain stimulators. Keeping in touch with friends and loved ones and maintaining connections will help keep your spirits up and your brain engaged. Face-to-face is best, but if that is not possible, electronic communication will work. Try Facetiming or Zooming with friends or family.
Every aspect of your life is affected by sleep — or lack of it, from looking and feeling your best to your having healthy relationships to meeting your goals at work. But in today’s fast-paced, multi-media world, it’s hard to get enough sleep with all the items on our daily to-do lists. Unfortunately, sleep deprivation has become the norm.
Studies have shown that both insufficient sleep and sleeping longer than average can increase your likelihood of developing dementia. Lack of sleep impacts your immune system, memory, emotions, weight, and can contribute to depression and anxiety. Research even shows that not getting enough sleep may shrink your brain.
Sleep is absolutely essential for your brain to work properly because during sleep your brain is busy processing information, consolidating memories, making connections, and clearing out toxins. When asleep, your brain does its housekeeping, and not having adequate time to do this could potentially accelerate neurodegenerative diseases.
Exercise is one of the best things for your brain. Some scientists even believe that the primary purpose of the brain is to move your body. The benefits of exercise for the body have been well-known for a long time. Because your body and the mind are integrally connected, exercise is also excellent for your brain and, in turn, mental health.
You don’t have to go to a gym. The goal here is just to move your body and, fortunately, the level of physical activity required to get brain benefits is not all that high. It might surprise you to hear that something as simple as walking produces meaningful results. It doesn’t even have to be power walking. Just a 30-minute brisk walk can have a positive impact on your brain.
A short burst of fun cardio activity in under 20 minutes — think dancing, jumping on a trampoline, mowing the yard, or working in the garden — qualifies. According to Harvard Medical School, “exercise lowers blood pressure, improves cholesterol levels, helps blood sugar balance and reduces mental stress, all of which can help your brain as well as your heart.”
Exercise is also one of the best things you can do to help prevent dementia and other cognitive changes. Sanjay Gupta, a Harvard Medical School neurosurgeon, advises us to “Think of inactivity as a disease.”
Improve Your Diet
You may think that cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s are just unavoidable parts of getting older. They’re not. Science has proven that dietary habits over your lifetime play a crucial role in determining whether you develop dementia. Research shows that altering your diet can reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s Disease by as much as 50 percent. According to the latest science, the answer is not found in eating any one food. The best results may be seen when supplementing your brain with a combination of nutrients that work together to support and nourish it.
The Mind Diet, developed by Martha Clare Morris, Ph.D., and her colleagues from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois, takes two proven diets – DASH and Mediterranean – and combines them zeroing in on the foods in each that specifically improve brain health. In studies, the MIND diet lowered the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by as much as 53 percent in participants that followed the diet rigorously. There was a 35 percent reduction in risk in those who followed it moderately well. In a similar study, people following the MIND diet experienced a substantial slowing of cognitive decline during an average of almost five years.
Science has undoubtedly proven that brain health is important at every age. The choices you make today are building the brain you’re going to have to live with tomorrow. Brain-healthy lifestyle habits will help your brain function better at every stage of your life and lower your risk of Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases, memory problems, brain fog, and age-related decline. You can support and protect your brain today with your lifestyle to optimize its health and function now and in the future.