We went through scientific studies and turned to experts on brain health to highlight the top tips for keeping your mind sharp throughout life. From staying social to learning new things—most of these tips are not just good for your brain, but beneficial for your physical and emotional well-being too—all the more reason to adopt these habits now.
“Numerous studies have found that greater adherence to a Mediterranean-style diet is associated with preservation of brain health and decreased risk of cognitive decline,” said Dr. Brendan Kelley, a neurologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and a member of Ohio State’s Neurological Institute. “This effect appears to extend throughout the lifespan, and a Mediterranean-style diet has even been associated with a decreased rate of cognitive decline among those already having cognitive impairment (or even dementia).”
It’s widely accepted that regular exercise is integral to overall health of the body, but the lesser-known benefits for the brain are equally as important. “Regular physical exercise has demonstrated a benefit in numerous health outcomes, including a widely replicated reduction in risk of cognitive decline and dementia,” said Kelley. “While the impact is greatest for people adopting this habit early and maintaining it throughout their life, studies have shown that it is never too late to enjoy the health benefits of regular physical activity.”
Close relationships with family and friends bring several benefits, including happiness, reduced risk of developing depression and, according to Dr. Brendan Kelley, a neurologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, a reduced risk of cognitive decline. Studies done in countries around the world have shown that those with “greater social connectedness” who “report higher quality of social interactions” are far more likely to “maintain brain health and decrease their risk of cognitive decline later in life.”
“Many studies have associated greater cognitive stimulation with preserved brain health,” said Kelley. “This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to solve a crossword a day (good news for those of us who don’t enjoy that particular puzzle). The key seems to be engaging in activities that we find interesting and that stimulate our minds.”
It pays to look on the bright side, says Dr. Brendan Kelley, a neurologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “People holding more optimistic personal attitudes have a decreased risk of dementia,” he said. “Other studies have even shown that this benefit extends to risk of death. Conversely, people holding attitudes of cynical distrust in later life have an increased risk of developing dementia.”
If you’ve ever had a particularly terrible night of sleep, where you just didn’t get much rest, then chances are you’ve felt the mental lag the next day. No amount of coffee can help pull your brain out of that sleepless slump and much of the day is a waste. Well, it’s not surprising then that studies show a chronic lack of sleep is a good indicator of cognitive decline down the line. “A good night’s sleep is essential,” said Dr. Yasmin Ohlsson, a family and lifestyle medicine doctor and consultant, with a special interest in preventative medicine. She notes that eight hours is ideal for most people.
Much in the same way that interesting, challenging activities are stimulating for the brain, research shows learning new skills and information can also help keep older brains functioning at their best. “Learn something new,” said Ohlsson. “[It] could be anything, cooking, playing an instrument, painting, the list goes on.” Working to grow your knowledge and skill set is “very beneficial” for brain health.
“The benefits of meditation are plentiful—from reducing stress to managing anxiety and depression—meditation is good for brain health,” said Jennifer Owens, an integrative mental health and wellness expert who has been working in the holistic health field for more than a decade specializing in stress and anxiety management. “[According to studies] meditation actually changes the way the brain works making it more efficient, by increasing the gray matter in the brain. Gray matter is mainly composed of neurons and helps the brain process information; increased grey matter can make the brain better at managing emotions, controlling attention, maintaining focus and more.”
A drink every now and then is fine for your health—in fact, some research suggests that “up to one drink per day does not impair cognitive function and may actually decrease the risk of cognitive decline.” But excessive alcohol consumption is another story. Studies have found that alcohol abuse is “common” among older people and that it’s not beneficial for your brain or your lifespan. “In excess, alcohol intake can be damaging to the brain” said Michelle London, a neuropsychologist at Weiss Memorial Hospital.
“You may have heard about the countless health benefits of eating fish rich in Omega-3 fatty acids. From heart health to cholesterol regulation, these fats are essential for our bodies to function efficiently,” said Dr. Vernon Williams, founding director of the Kerlan-Jobe Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine. “They also deliver some major brain-health needs. Studies suggest Omega-3 fatty acids help provide the structure necessary to maintain brain cells. Additionally, they are crucial for the smooth delivery of information between those cells. On the other hand, foods that are devoid of nutrition, like those high in sugar and saturated fats, have been found to actually damage brain cell membranes.”
“When possible, it's best to consume Omega 3 fatty acids in food-form rather than supplements,” he said. “Some of the highest concentrations can be found in these fishy friends: wild-caught salmon, anchovies, tuna, lake trout, sardines, herring, mackerel and sturgeon. Even better news is that it isn't just fish that can provide that Omega-3 fatty acid boost in your diet. This versatile compound is also found in walnuts and flax seeds.”