There's more to keeping your brain sharp than crossword puzzles. Preserving your cognitive skills for the long term means adopting a healthy lifestyle — and it doesn't have to be complicated (really!).
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"There are a number of healthy lifestyle habits that can help enhance cognitive function, optimize long-term brain health and greatly decrease the odds of developing dementia," says Scott Kaiser, MD, director of Geriatric Cognitive Health for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. (And because many of these behaviors also support your overall health, you'll reap the benefits from head to toe.)
This seven-day kickstart plan can help. By dedicating one day each week to incorporating a new brain-friendly behavior, you'll make positive changes quickly without getting overwhelmed. Give it a try — and by the end of the week, you'll be well on your way to living the gray matter good life.
Day 1: Get One More Serving of Fruit or Veggies
Stir a big handful of blueberries into your morning oatmeal or trade that bag of chips at lunch for a side salad. Every helping of produce delivers a dose of protection for your brain. Fruits and vegetables are packed with protective phytonutrients, and these plant chemicals "can actually reduce inflammation in our brains, protect brain cells from injury and support learning and memory," Dr. Kaiser says.
In fact, one September 2021 study in Neurology found adults with the highest intake of flavonoids, a type of plant compound, reported 19 percent less forgetfulness or confusion compared to adults who got the fewest flavonoids. Picks like leafy greens and berries are thought to pack the biggest brain-protecting punch, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Once you've incorporated that extra serving of produce, try adding another — and even another — until you're regularly getting the recommended five or more helpings of fruit and vegetables daily.
Day 2: Schedule a Screening for High Blood Pressure and Diabetes
Unchecked high blood pressure or diabetes can damage blood vessels in the brain. And because both conditions can potentially lurk undetected, a screening can help you find out exactly where you stand — and take action, if needed.
"High blood pressure and diabetes, as well as obesity and smoking, when uncontrolled, increase one's risk of developing strokes, which can impair cognition," explains Daniel Lee, MD, a neuropsychiatrist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Adults 18 to 39 at average risk for high blood pressure should be screened every 3 to 5 years, while those over 40 or younger adults at higher risk for high blood pressure should be screened once a year, according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF).
Those ages 35 to 70 who have overweight or obesity should be screened for diabetes every 3 years, per the USPSTF. If you're not sure whether you're due for a blood pressure or diabetes screening, talk with your doctor.
Day 3: Take a 10-Minute Walk
Regular activity is crucial for brain health. Cognitive decline is twice as likely to occur in inactive adults compared to those who are active, according to a December 2020 study in Preventive Medicine.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends getting 150 minutes of moderate physical activity weekly, or around 30 minutes most days of the week. If you're not currently active, try incorporating just 10 minutes of movement into your day and build up from there. A simple walk around the block is a great place to start. Then aim to go a little longer tomorrow!
Regular exercise keeps your body and brain healthy, but it can also lift your mood and help you sleep better, per the CDC. And that's a beneficial cycle for your brain: People who report feeling anxious, depressed or sleep-deprived tend to perform worse on cognitive tests, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Try These Quick Workouts
Day 4: Go to Bed 15 Minutes Earlier
Speaking of sleep, start working toward getting the recommended 7 to 9 hours of shut-eye per night. If that means bumping up your bedtime in a big way, try turning in just 15 minutes earlier each evening until you're logging a healthy amount of sleep.
Regularly getting fewer than 6 hours per night in middle age is associated with a 30 percent higher chance of developing dementia later in life compared to getting 7 hours or more, according to a study of nearly 8,000 adults in the April 2021 issue of Nature Communications.
"The quantity and quality of sleep have profound physiologic [effects] that impact our day-to-day thinking, memory and mood as well as our long-term risk of cognitive decline and dementia," Dr. Kaiser says.
With those kinds of factors at stake, watching just one more episode starts to lose its appeal, doesn't it?
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Day 5: Have Fish for Dinner
Getting plenty of omega-3 fatty acids — especially DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid — is tied to better memory and learning and lower rates of cognitive decline, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). And fatty fish like salmon, herring, mackerel, tuna and trout are a top source.
Aim to get your fill of DHA by eating two 4-ounce servings of fatty fish per week. If you're starting at zero, aim to get seafood on the menu for dinner once a week and move up from there. (Try these tasty salmon recipes under 500 calories.)
Better still: Trade a meal featuring beef or poultry for one starring fish. "Studies on vascular outcomes favor diets that promote fish and legumes as sources of protein over other forms of non-fish, including red meat," Dr. Lee says.
More Recipes to Try
Day 6: Look at Your Alcohol Intake
A glass of wine with dinner or the occasional special occasion cocktail probably won't hurt your brain. But if you're drinking heavily on a regular basis, come up with a plan for slowly cutting back. Depending on your habits, that might mean cutting out one drink per day or per week.
Drinking more than 14 boozy beverages per week is linked to an increased risk for dementia, according to a January 2020 review in Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment. Alcohol in high concentrations "may have direct toxic effects on the blood vessels and brain cells, [causing] oxidative stress and a broad cascade of other negative metabolic effects," Dr. Kaiser says.
That's not to say you need to abstain altogether—it's about striking a healthy balance. "Light to moderate alcohol consumption can actually have an anti-inflammatory effect and support a broad range of neuroprotective physiologic events," Kaiser explains.
Day 7: Sign Up to Volunteer
Doing good for others can do good for your brain. While more research is needed, in preliminary studies, volunteering appears to be associated with better brain function, likely because it helps participants stay physically active, maintain social ties and engage in activities that are stimulating and enriching, according to a November 2017 analysis in The Journals of Gerontology: Series B.
No one type of volunteer work has been shown to be better for the brain than others, so focus on finding an activity you love. "We generally encourage those that the individual enjoys partaking in, in hopes that these promote engagement, stimulation, delight and a sense of wellbeing," Dr. Lee says.
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- Neurology: "Long-term Dietary Flavonoid Intake and Subjective Cognitive Decline in US Men and Women."
- Mayo Clinic: "Improve brain health with the MIND diet."
- USPSTF: "Hypertension in adults: screening."
- USPSTF: "Prediabetes and type 2 diabetes: screening."
- Preventive Medicine: "Cross-sectional association between physical activity level and subjective cognitive decline among US adults aged ≥45 years, 2015."
- CDC: "Physical activity boosts brain health."
- Harvard Health Publishing: "12 ways to keep your brain young."
- Nature Communications: "Association of sleep duration in middle and old age with incidence of dementia."
- Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment: "Alcohol and Dementia – What is the Link? A Systematic Review."
- The Journals of Gerontology: Series B: "Volunteering in the Community: Potential Benefits for Cognitive Aging."
- AND: "Brain Health and Fish"