Wellness on the Brain: 6 Steps for Maintaining Cognitive Health
By the year 2050, an estimated 20% of the American population will be older than age 65, which is almost double the current percentage. The topic of cognitive health — that is, the health of the brain — is understandably on the minds of many, since cognitive decline is a well-documented side effect of aging. What are some of the best ways to maintain or even improve our brain function? Read on to learn about six ways to boost brain health, improve memory, and reduce the impact of cognitive decline.
1. Play some mind games
As was noted by the Mayo Clinic, while the brain is not a muscle, it does share one important similarity: Much like a muscle, if you don’t use your brain, you will “lose” it, and the brain requires exercise to stay healthy. Fortunately, there are plenty of fun ways to keep your brain active, including doing crossword or Sudoku puzzles, reading, playing cards, putting together jigsaw puzzles, and much more.
The benefits of playing brain games are even more numerous than they might originally appear. According to the Cleveland Clinic, doing brain health exercises not only helps prevent cognitive decline, it also helps promote the growth of new brain cells. Switching up which brain exercises you do can also be beneficial, as research has shown that taking part in “novel” activities encourages the brain to strengthen existing cellular connections, while also forming new ones. So, don’t be shy about solving that word search or challenging someone to a game of Scrabble. After all, you’re not just playing a game — you’re keeping your brain in tip-top shape!
2. Work out the body, work out the brain
In the same way that brain games help keep the mind in shape, physical activity is also good for cognitive health. The National Institute on Aging (NIA) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that physical activity can not only help protect against brain degeneration, it can also promote cognitive resilience, doing its part to counteract the mental decline commonly associated with aging. Additionally, exercise can increase the size of a brain structure that plays a crucial role in memory and the learning process, proving that exercise and brain health are intrinsically connected.
Guidelines released by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommend exercising at a moderate intensity level for at least 150 minutes per week, which breaks down to just a little bit more than 20 minutes a day. Studies have indicated that aerobic exercise — which includes any kind of activity that increases your heart rate, such as brisk walking, swimming, or playing tennis — could be especially beneficial for the brain.
Need more incentive to get your heart rate going? Research indicates that not taking part in exercise and fostering harmful health habits can have a negative effect on brain health. The Cleveland Clinic reports that hypertension (also known as high blood pressure) can lead to structural damage within the brain, which could play a role in a decline in brain health later in life. Do both your body and your brain a favor: Slip on those tennis shoes and get moving.
3. Food, glorious food
The foods we eat can play a major role in how we feel, how our bodies behave and yes, even how our brains function. For instance, Nature, the world’s leading multidisciplinary scientific journal, reported that obesity can be associated with mild cognitive impairments. The NIA has also noted that regularly eating high-sodium foods could potentially lead to health issues like heart disease and diabetes, which are also harmful to the brain. Luckily for us, however, there are plenty of healthy food options that are both delicious and beneficial for cognitive health.
Recently, the “Mediterranean diet” has been garnering a lot of good press from scientific experts and publications for its positive impact on both the body — including digestive health — and the brain. The Mediterranean diet, so-called because it features many foods that are popular in the Mediterranean region, includes less red meat and salt and more plant-based foods, whole grains, fish and olive oil. Foods that are rich in omega fatty acids — like fish, walnuts, flaxseeds and other sources of healthy fats — are considered some of the best foods for brain health, since omega fatty acids help increase mental focus and slow cognitive decline.
Additionally, foods that are high in polyphenols (i.e., micronutrients that are packed with powerful antioxidants) are known to help lower levels of oxidative stress and inflammation, which can also help prevent or even reverse age-related brain deficits. Some of these foods, including blueberries and strawberries, have even been shown to slow the rate of cognitive decline by up to two and a half years. The science is clear: Eating certain foods can have a measurably good impact on the health of your brain, so next time you’re preparing a meal, load up your plate with healthy fats and leafy greens.
4. If you can’t get it from food, get it elsewhere
Sometimes it can be hard to constantly maintain a healthy diet or to ensure that you get 100% of your required daily nutrients from the food you eat. However, the brain depends on micronutrients to perform many important functions, and as a result, nutrient deficiencies sometimes lead to cognitive decline. For this reason, many people have begun turning to dietary and brain health supplements to make sure they reap the healthy benefits these supplements can provide.
Nootropics are a class of natural supplements that can be beneficial for proper brain function. Some nootropics are known to help boost memory and general cognitive performance, as well as motivation, creativity and alertness. Wellness stores have shelves full of numerous types of nootropics — which can include a mix of ingredients, such as choline, acetyl-L-carnitine, creatine, ginseng, bacopa and flavonoids — but based on the current available research, some of these are more proven to make a difference than others.
As previously mentioned, omega fatty acids are extremely beneficial for brain health; the brain cannot function properly without omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, and a deficiency in this nutrient can lead to difficulties with learning and memory. Most of the omega fatty acids in the human diet come from fish, though, which not everyone likes to eat and that some cannot consume more than once or twice a week. Fish oil and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) supplementation have therefore become popular means of obtaining omega fatty acids. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), studies have shown that supplementation with DHA, the principle omega-3 fatty acid in the brain and heart, can improve both memory and reaction time.
Various new dietary and cognitive supplements are cropping up all the time, and some, such as those containing gingko biloba and B vitamins, have proven in clinical trials to be effective for boosting brain health. If you think you may not be getting enough of a certain nutrient through your diet alone, consult with your doctor about potentially adding supplements to your daily routine.
5. Ready to mingle
Love to socialize? Well, here’s some good news: Interacting with other people is more than just fun — it boosts your brain health. The Mayo Clinic reports that being socially involved helps decrease stress and depression, both of which can contribute to cognitive decline. Additionally, studies indicate that the slowest rate of memory decline has been observed in those who socialize the most. The positive effects of social interaction are even more heightened in people who interact with friends and acquaintances than in those who only converse with members of their families. So, if you were thinking about joining a club or signing up to volunteer for a local cause, here’s your sign!
According to the NIA, the cognitive benefits derived from social interaction could be contributed to the fact that the brain must tap into the areas responsible for language and memory when we converse with each other, and that increased activity in those areas can boost brain health. This also explains why social contact can help improve cognitive reserve, which allows older adults to maintain relatively normal modes of thinking and memory recall despite the brain-health decline associated with aging. Mix social interaction with physical activity — by walking with a group of friends or playing doubles tennis — and you’ve got a cognitive health double-whammy.
6. Say good night
Ask any scientific expert, and they will likely tell you just how important sleep and rest are for your overall health. But sleep is particularly important for your brain. As has been noted by the Mayo Clinic, consecutive sleep — preferably, seven to eight hours every night — allows your brain to focus on consolidating and storing your memories, which is important for general cognitive function.
On the other hand, sleep deprivation can wreak havoc on your brain. In a study by the NIA, participants who reported feeling sleepy during the day were almost three times more likely to have deposits of beta-amyloid protein (which is associated with cognitive decline) in their brains than those who did not experience daytime fatigue. Even minimal sleep deprivation can be bad for cognition: Another study revealed that a loss of simply two hours of sleep per night over two weeks was associated with diminished attention and short-term memory. Sleep may seem like a treat, but as the science has shown, it is actually a necessity.
Cognitive health can impact every aspect of daily life, from memory recall to the ability to have a conversation with another person. Try incorporating these six steps for improved brain health into your routine and see whether they have a measurable impact — your brain will thank you.