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10 Ways to Improve Your Brain Health Right Now

Serious mental decline is not an inevitable part of aging. You can improve your short and long-term brain health and significantly lower the risk of dementia--even if it runs in your family. The saying that 'genetics loads the gun, but lifestyle pulls the trigger' is certainly true for brain health. Fortunately, there are numerous strategies and lifestyle changes that can contribute to maintaining optimal brain health and cognitive function well into our golden years. Here are 10 effective ways to keep our brains sharp and vibrant as the candles start to become fire hazards on our birthday cakes.

exercise and healthy food for brain health

1. Stay Physically Active

Physical activity isn't just good for your body; it's also crucial for your brain. I devoted a previous blog post on the latest research between physical activity and brain health, which you can read here. Basically, engaging in regular exercise increases blood flow to the brain, stimulates the release of growth factors, and promotes the formation of new neural connections. Several studies have shown that middle-aged people who exercise regularly reduce their risk of Alzheimer's by 45%. Aim for a combination of aerobic exercise (like walking or hiking), strength training, and flexibility and mobility exercises (Pilates and yoga are good for these) to reap the maximum cognitive benefits. The brain craves different types of movement to create new neural pathways and stay stimulated, so try to change it up as much as possible.

2. Eat a Brain-Boosting Diet

Our brains need the right nutrients to function at their best. Incorporate foods rich in antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins into your diet. Berries, fatty fish, nuts, leafy greens, and whole grains are excellent choices. Avoid excessive consumption of processed foods, sugary snacks, and saturated fats, as they can contribute to inflammation and cognitive decline. Aim to create colorful plates using different types of vegetables. Again, the brain craves variety, so try to incorporate as many different and colorful whole, natural foods like fruits and vegetables into your diet as you can.

healthy foods for brain health

3. Challenge Your Mind

Continuously challenging your brain with new and complex activities can help keep it sharp. Your brain is like a muscle: you need to train it. Instead of passively watching television or mindlessly browsing Facebook, engage in activities like reading, puzzles, crosswords, Sudoku, learning a musical instrument, or taking up a new hobby. The key is to stimulate different areas of your brain and encourage the formation of new neural pathways. Here's a link to some great board games that help improve cognition. Bananagrams is a favorite in our household!

4. Get Quality Sleep

Sleep is essential for memory consolidation and overall cognitive function. Sleep enables our brain to recover and repair itself. Aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night. Create a comfortable sleep environment, establish a regular sleep schedule, and practice relaxation techniques before bed to improve sleep quality instead of relying on medications to help you sleep.

5. Stay Socially Connected

Maintaining social connections is not only emotionally rewarding but also beneficial for your brain health. Regular social interactions can help reduce the risk of cognitive decline and depression. Joining clubs, engaging in community activities, spending time with family and friends, or volunteering are all ways to stay socially connected. Personally, I look forward to our weekly game night with neighbors. It ticks two boxes at once by challenging the mind and connecting socially with friends.

6. Manage Stress

Chronic stress can have detrimental effects on brain health. Focus on identifying and eliminating (to the extent possible) the stressors in your life. Practice stress-reduction techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, yoga, or mindfulness. You can do these online or via meditation apps on your smartphone. Engaging in these practices can help lower cortisol levels and promote overall mental well-being.

7. Improve Your Gut

The 40,000 billion bacteria that live in your gut secrete thousands of different substances that can enter your bloodstream and impact how your brain works, and influence your cognitive abilities and even your feelings. Scientists call this the “gut-brain axis”. The bacteria in your gut secrete substances such as neurotransmitters, neuropeptides and inflammatory molecules, which influence the brain.

If you eat unhealthy food, you have a gut microbiome that secretes unhealthy substances that make you feel less than optimal and that can impair your thinking. For a healthy microbiome it’s important to consume a lot of water-soluble fibers from vegetables, fruit, nuts, mushrooms and legumes. Also eat less sugar and starch (including bread, potatoes, pasta and rice), since starch is made of glucose. Too much glucose can cause overgrowth of unhealthy bacteria in the gut (which love glucose).

Also important for proper gut health is preventing deficiencies of vitamin A, vitamin D, zinc, iodine and selenium: these vitamins contribute to a healthy, strong intestinal immune system. This immune system can keep the microbiome under control and well-balanced. You can prevent vitamin deficiencies by eating a well-balanced diet that includes all the things mentioned in #2 above. If you are vegan or avoid certain food groups, a multivitamin may be necessary.

8. Maintain a Healthy Heart

Cardiovascular health and brain health are closely linked. Conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol can increase the risk of cognitive decline. Adopt heart-healthy habits such as maintaining a balanced diet, staying physically active, and managing chronic health conditions.

9. Stay Curious and Open-Minded

Cultivate a curious mindset and remain open to learning new things. Engage in conversations, explore new topics, travel to new destinations, and embrace change. This approach keeps your brain engaged and adaptable, helping to build cognitive resilience.

woman writing in travel journal

10. Get Regular Medical Checkups

Various diseases can be detrimental for your brain health, especially in the long term, like high blood pressure, pre-diabetes, diabetes, atherosclerosis (the clogging of your blood vessels), leaky gut, too much abdominal fat, low-grade systemic inflammation, and so on. For example, hypertension and atherosclerosis damage the blood vessels in your brain, and increase your risk of stroke and Alzheimer’s disease. Too much abdominal fat secretes substances in the bloodstream that reach the brain and cause inflammation there, increasing the risk of Alzheimer’s. Pre-diabetes is also unhealthy for our brain. That's why some researchers call Alzheimer’s disease “type 3 diabetes”, referring to the fact that insulin resistance of the brain can also significantly contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. Be sure to get regular medical checkups to catch these problems as soon as possible.

It bears repeating: cognitive decline is not inevitable. Just like physical fitness, our mental well-being requires consistent care and attention, especially as we age. With just a few healthy habits, you can proactively improve your brain health and enjoy a fulfilling, vibrant life to the end. Remember that it's never too early or too late to start prioritizing your brain health, so take the first step towards a brighter, more resilient future today.

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