Brain health is today’s hottest health topic. While research gives us more and more answers about how we can safeguard our brain health and significantly lower our risk for diseases such as Alzheimer’s, the average person has little idea what exactly they can do. Often I am asked what we can do to boost everyday memory and protect our long-term brain health. Here are my top 10 things I think everyone should absolutely know about brain health – and they might just surprise you!
Take a Walk. Many of us think about giving our brains a workout, but the kind of exercises we think of as “brain healthy” rarely involve working up a sweat. Yet getting off the couch and on your feet is absolutely the BEST thing you can do for your brain! Studies have shown that regular aerobic exercise (the kind where you can keep up but can’t keep up a conversation) boosts our daily intellectual performance and significantly lowers our risk for dementia. Some studies have even suggested that regular exercise can reduce that risk by up to 38%. So if time is limited and you need a “best bets” tip for boosting brainpower, go bust some moves. How much exercise do you need? Studies suggest that even just walking at a vigorous pace at least 30 minutes a day 5-6 days a week will do the trick.
Lose that Spare Tire. While there is no “miracle diet” for your brain, what we eat definitely matters to our brain health. A brain healthy diet supports everyday memory, and can protect us from chronic medical conditions that increase our dementia risk. Also, studies have shown that maintaining a healthy weight with a low ratio of “belly fat” can significantly lower our risk for a memory disorder, even beginning in middle age. No need to spend on a special supplement! Stick to a healthy, well-balanced diet, maintain an appropriate weight, and balance your intake of alcohol and caffeine. Want to go that extra step? Try adding foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants to your diet. Some studies have suggested that they may lower dementia risk – even if in the long run other studies aren’t as supportive, foods such as fish and berries are still a better choice than that double bacon cheeseburger with fries.
Follow Your Doctor’s Orders. Staying on top of your medical care is key for addressing issues that affect memory. Managing chronic conditions, such as hypertension or diabetes, can significantly reduce our risk for stroke and dementia. Also, taking care of medical issues such as hearing or vision loss can make a tremendous difference in our ability to learn new information, such as a name. Have a cold? It might be making it harder for you to keep track of your errands. Finally, find out if your medications may be making it harder for you to remember. Talk with your doctor about your concerns, and see if any adjustments can be made if necessary.
Get Your Zzzzz’s. Lifestyle choices we make daily, such as how much sleep we get, how stressed we feel, to what risks we take (such as whether we use a helmet when we ride a bike or ski) impact our daily memory performance and brain health. Emotional distress – anxiety, feeling blue – also can lower our everyday ability. It may even increase our risk for memory impairment. Want to live better for your brain? Lead a brain healthy lifestyle. Get a good night’s sleep, avoid risky behaviors, and don’t ignore emotional upsets. A leading study on successful aging found that folks who aged well were more emotionally resilient. In other words, they didn’t let their feelings fester. Great advice to be mindful of.
Play PacMan. As we grow older, we can experience changes in our everyday intellectual skills. Those changes commonly affect our ability to stay focused, think quickly, multitask, and learn new information (after all, learning new things such as a name require the previous three skills!). Want to stay sharp no matter what your age? Play games against the clock. Research shows that training in these skills can help stay more effective at them, no matter what our age. Timed activities force us to pay attention, work fast, and think nimbly – you can’t beat the clock without doing so! And the great news is that there are so many great brain games we can play, from board games to electronic games to computer-based, brain fitness specific training games (which have no unique scientific benefit, but can boost your stick-to-it-tiveness by acting as a personal trainer for your brain).
Learn How to Remember. Strategies that help us learn and retain information are key for improving everyday memory. While things such as timed brain games or eating a brain healthy diet certainly support better memory, we still need a bit of a boost when it comes to remembering things such as passwords, directions and – everyone’s favorite! – names. Studies have long supported the use of task-specific memory strategies. For example, researchers at the University of Alabama found that using such strategies not only significantly improved recall but also that those gains in performance held over two years! Learn simple strategies to enhance your daily recall, such as making a connection between something you are learning (like the name “Florence”) and something you already know (such as the actress Florence Henderson, or the Italian city of Florence). And don’t forget those date books and “to do” lists! These “memory tools” are essential for keeping track of the things we have to do but that aren’t worth memorizing.
Get Schooled. A few years ago I was approached after a lecture by a gentleman who told me that every year he and his wife agree to try some new hobby or pursuit. That year, he’s decided to learn guitar. His annual resolution is the perfect approach to always finding new challenges for your mind. Research shows that staying intellectually engaged over our lifetime can significantly lower our risk for memory impairment, in some studies by as much as 63%. While it isn’t clear exactly why maintaining mental challenge matters to brain health, most likely such challenges encourage brain plasticity and may offer protection against deterioration over time. In addition, intellectual engagement offers us opportunities to socialize and supports emotional well-being, which in themselves are important to better brain health. Look for activities out of your comfort zone – if you like to read, try a pottery class. Also, look for little ways to “change up” your brain’s routine, such as brushing your teeth with your nondominant hand, or taking a new route to work.
Go Out with the Gang. Want a really fun way to boost your brainpower? Try a night on the town with your best buddies! Staying social has been shown to potentially cut your risk for memory impairment in half. That’s a pretty powerful reason to get away from the TV and out the door! In addition, social situations offer a great challenge for our everyday thinking. Keeping up our end of the conversation gets us to stay focused, think fast and be nimble with our neurons. Look for ways to get out informally with friends, as well as other ways to engage through your community or other resources.
Get a Job. Working or volunteering can improve your daily intellectual performance. You get a good brain workout on the job, which offers you the chance to engage both mentally and socially. What you may not know is that more complex work settings, such as those that require you to supervise others, have been associated with a reduced risk for dementia later in life. In addition, continuing to work or volunteer gives us a sense of purpose, which researchers at Rush Medical Center in Chicago recently found may protect us from memory impairment.
Practice the Power of Positive Thinking. Our final surprising fact is one that, when you think about it, isn’t surprising at all. If you want to remember better, believe that you can! Self-perception can impact our performance. If a baseball player thinks he’ll never hit it out of the park, chances are he never will. In that same vein, if you are convinced your memory is lousy, it probably will be! Studies have shown that our memory self-belief impacts how well we do on tests of memory ability. In addition, what we think about ourselves can make a difference to how motivated we are to even try to remember something! Practice the power of positive thinking and believe in your memory. As Henry Ford once said, “(W)hether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right.”