We all know it’s important to take care of our physical bodies through eating healthy and exercising regularly, but just like the rest of our body, our brain ages as well: it shrinks in size, slows down in speed, and becomes less adaptable to change over time. While we know a night of drinking will leave us with a hangover in the morning or spending too many nights of getting little sleep will eventually make us feel exhausted and worn out, we don’t always consider the way these lifestyle choices and behaviors can impact things like memory and overall cognitive function.
What you consume through eating and drinking, how much you exercise, how much and how well you sleep, your social network, and how you manage stress are all critically important to your brain health as you get older. Here are a few easy ways to maintain a healthy brain and improve cognitive health as you age:
Keep your brain engaged by being a lifelong student
Being a bookworm can have serious benefits throughout adulthood and provide a great form of brain training. A recent study showed older adults who maintained a habit of mentally stimulating activities including reading and writing regularly helped reduce the overall rate of memory decline by 32%.
Consider starting a book club or stay connected with your family through a fun pen pal relationship with your grandchildren or other family members. Subscribe to your favorite newsletters, magazines, journals, or other publications. By making a commitment to learning you’re preserving your memory and overall brain health as you age.
Make sure you’re getting enough sleep
While you think you’re taking a rest from the day as you sleep your brain is actually putting in overtime to store memories and move new skills you’ve recently learned to more permanent areas of your brain. But if you aren’t getting enough sleep this can later impact everything from memory and concentration to other cognitive functions, according to the National Institute on Aging.
So how can you sleep better to overall maintain a healthy brain as you age? Limit the amount of caffeine and other stimulants later in the day along with any heavy meals—both of these things can irritate your system and cause you to lose sleep if you have them too close to bedtime. If you like to drink cut back on the amount of alcohol you’re taking in and avoid drinking four to six hours before bed—alcohol disrupts REM and slow-wave sleep, which are both important for memory.
What’s your nighttime routine like? Do you go to bed at the same time every night or is your schedule all over the place? The National Sleep Foundation recommends adults 65 and older should aim for seven to eight hours of sleep, and if you’re between the ages of 26 and 64, you should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep. Having a bedtime routine and sticking to it, even on the weekends, can improve your overall sleep experience.
The research is in: finding ways to fill your social calendar can have a much bigger impact on brain health and overall well being than once initially thought. A recent study found that older adults with high levels of an Alzheimer’s-linked protein found in their brains were able to slow down mental decline if they got out and socialized regularly. Not only does maintaining a strong social network reduce stress, provide support, enhance intellectual stimulation, and help combat depression and feelings of loneliness, but research from Brigham Young University also shows loneliness, social isolation, and living alone are greater risk factors than obesity for premature death.
To maintain a healthy brain and stay engaged consider finding others through shared hobbies and interests, joining a local club that gives you a sense of purpose, or using WayWiser’s Family Engagement Program to easily stay connected to family members and loved ones. Luckily, in today’s rapidly evolving technological world, there are tons of ways to combat loneliness and isolation.
Eat a brain boosting diet
“You are what you eat” is one mantra you’ve probably heard your whole life—and for a good reason. According to health experts at HealthyBrains.org, the older you get, the more your brain is exposed to harmful stress related to lifestyle and environmental factors, resulting in a process called oxidation, which damages brain cells (think of rust on the handlebars of a bike to give you an idea of the oxidation process).
By eating food rich in antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and B vitamins you can help combat the harmful effects of oxidation in your brain. Research shows that a Mediterranean-style diet rich in fish, plant based proteins, whole grains, green leafy vegetables, olives, and nuts, and choosing healthy fats, such as olive oil or canola over saturated fats, helps maintain brain health and may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Blueberries, for example, have been shown to improve communication between brain cells, delay short-term memory loss, and reduce inflammation.
Listen to music or play an instrument
According to one Johns Hopkins otolaryngologist, “There are few things that stimulate your brain in the same way music does. If you want to keep your brain engaged throughout the aging process, listening to or playing music is a great tool. It provides a total brain workout.”
Research has also shown that listening to music has the power to reduce anxiety, blood pressure, and pain as well as improve sleep quality, mood, and mental alertness. In one study, when 13 older adults took piano lessons, their attention, memory and problem-solving abilities improved, along with their moods and quality of life. Music interventions have been widely adopted as a potential non-pharmacological therapy for patients with Alzheimer’s disease to treat cognitive and/or behavioral symptoms of the disease. A 2019 study published in Frontiers in Psychology showed that listening to music and/or playing music improved memory function in older adults.
Whether you want to use Spotify to stream music from all over the world or use YouTube to search for all your favorite songs and learn how to play an instrument, music is an easy tool to use to keep your brain healthy.