A few simple evening habits can help keep your brain in tip-top shape, including protecting against cognitive decline and improving overall memory and focus.
If you want to be your noggin's BFF, do these five things before turning in.
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1. Get Back to Nature
Want to boost your brainpower? Mother Earth can lend a hand. A June 2019 study in Current Directions in Psychological Science suggests that exposure to green spaces results in higher cognitive functioning, particularly in the areas of working memory, flexible thinking and focus.
Time spent in nature can even guard against cognitive decline. A December 2022 study in Environmental Health showed that spending time in natural environments reduced the risk of dementia, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
So eat dinner on your terrace, wind down with a good book in a backyard hammock at sunset or take an after-dinner stroll around a leafy block or through the park.
2. Set a Bedtime Reminder
Indeed, a sleep routine makes it easier to drift off and stay asleep throughout the night. That means you're likely to log more total hours of shut-eye than if you vary the time you hit the sack.
What's more: "We spend different parts of the night in different stages of sleep," says Reid Kehoe, PsyD, neuropsychologist at Northwestern Medicine. "Irregular sleep timing makes it harder to maintain a sleep rhythm, which can adversely impact cognitive function."
A 2021 study in npj Digital Medicine found that people with a topsy-turvey sleep schedule were more likely to be depressed and report being in a low mood.
An easy way to help you stay on track: Many smartphones have the option to set a reminder when bedtime is approaching to cue you to begin winding down.
Keep in mind that the time you need to wind down may be different from someone else's (including your bed partner's), so you may want to experiment with different timeframes to see what works best for you.
(P.S. Sticking to a regular wake-up time is equally important — even if it means not sleeping in. "'Catching up' on the weekend can actually have a negative effect," Kehoe says.)
3. Swap Wine for Water
Consuming even modest amounts of alcohol is kryptonite for your noodle. A March 2022 Nature Communications study found that having just a few drinks a week was associated with decreased brain volume. (No surprise here, but just so you know, the more you imbibe, the greater the effect. Having one drink a day is the cognitive equivalent of aging two years, whereas 1.5 drinks per day is the same as aging 3.5 years in terms of reduced white and gray matter.)
That's not all. Circling back to shut-eye: "Many people don't realize the negative impact that just a single alcoholic drink can have on sleep," Kehoe says. Booze can cause insomnia, shorter sleep duration, nighttime disruptions and sleep apnea.
Instead of a nightcap, pour yourself a glass of H2O. In a November 2018 analysis in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, folks with inadequate levels of hydration had a decline in cognitive performance — including impaired attention, processing speed and coordination.
Furthermore, a May 2018 study in Nutrients suggests that in people over 65, dehydration increases the risk of dementia — as well as worsening cognitive decline in folks who already have dementia.
According to the study, if you're not drinking enough, defective proteins are more likely to build up in the brain and cause damage to your neurons and synapses.
Pro tip: Jazz up plain agua by infusing it with berries. They're a key part of the MIND diet — a Mediterranean-DASH diet hybrid that can improve brain health and reduce the risk of dementia by as much as 53 percent, according to a January 2022 study in Alzheimer's Research & Therapy.
4. Get Lost in a Book
You can read your way to better brain health. "Reading has consistently been shown to facilitate sleep onset, minimize anxiety and calm the brain," Kehoe says. Plus: "People who read on a regular basis have better cognitive outcomes."
A small December 2013 study in Brain Connectivity found that cracking open a novel increased neural connections.
Meanwhile, a July 2018 study in JAMA Psychiatry suggests reading books, newspapers or magazines lowers your risk of dementia.
5. Put Your Phone Away Two Hours Before Bed
Your "smart" phone could be making you dumber. A study in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research revealed that having your phone within reach leads to "brain drain." It reduces your cognitive capacity, including working memory, learning, logical reasoning, problem solving and creativity.
According to the study, this effect persisted when the phone was face down, silenced or even turned off. Luckily, "out of sight, out of mind" helps: Stashing your phone in a different room improved brainpower.
Giving your cell the boot also protects sleep. Harvard Health Publishing points out that exposure to the blue light emitted by screens suppresses melatonin, the hormone that induces drowsiness. That means using your phone within a couple of hours of hitting the pillow can make you feel more alert, so dreamland becomes elusive.
"Most smartphones have the option of a 'night mode' screen setting that limits blue light," Kehoe says. Switch that on just in case you use your phone after dark.
And do your brain one last favor: Don't doze off with your phone nearby. A June 2020 study in Nature and Science of Sleep found that doing so was associated with daytime fatigue, difficulty falling asleep and sleep disruptions (so was using the phone for eight or more hours a day, by the way).
- Current Directions in Psychological Science: "Understanding Nature and Its Cognitive Benefits"
- Science Advances : "Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective"
- Environmental Health: "Associations of Greenness, Parks, and Blue Space With Neurodegenerative Disease Hospitalizations Among Older US Adults"
- npj Digital Medicine: "Day-to-day variability in sleep parameters and depression risk: a prospective cohort study of training physicians"
- University of Pennsylvania: "One alcoholic drink a day linked with reduced brain size"
- Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: "Dehydration Impairs Cognitive Performance: A Meta-analysis"
- Nutrients: "Neurocognitive Disorders and Dehydration in Older Patients: Clinical Experience Supports the Hydromolecular Hypothesis of Dementia"
- Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy: "MIND diet and the risk of dementia: a population-based study"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Is It Healthy To Drink Water Before Bed?"
- Brain Connectivity: "Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain"
- International Psychogeriatrics: "Reading activity prevents long-term decline in cognitive function in older people: evidence from a 14-year longitudinal study"
- JAMA Psychiatry: "Association of Daily Intellectual Activities With Lower Risk of Incident Dementia Among Older Chinese Adults"
- Journal of the Association for Consumer Research: "Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Blue light has a dark side"
- Nature and Science of Sleep: "Effects of Mobile Use on Subjective Sleep Quality"
- Nature Communications: "Associations between alcohol consumption and gray and white matter volumes in the UK Biobank"
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