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You don’t need to make big changes to boost your brain health. These little steps can quickly add up
In the past 24 hours, if you’ve read a book, followed a recipe, chatted with a friend or worked on a crossword puzzle, you can pat yourself on the back. You’ve not only done something enjoyable but also given your brain a boost.
Cognitive activity — such as puzzles or brain games — and social engagement can help keep your brain healthy. They may reduce your risk of memory loss, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Cognitive decline doesn’t need to be a natural aspect of aging. In fact, it’s far from inevitable, especially when you’re proactive about keeping your brain in good shape.
Why do brain-boosting activities matter? The National Institutes for Health (NIH) reports that being intellectually engaged may benefit the brain by building a “cognitive reserve” that helps make up for “age-related brain changes and health conditions that affect the brain.”
That’s important, because cognitive decline can lead to serious conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. This progressive brain disorder, the most common type of dementia and the sixth leading cause of death among adults over 65, is marked by symptoms such as impaired reasoning and memory loss, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
An estimated 5.5 million Americans may be living with the disease, notes the National Institute on Aging, and that number is expected to triple by 2060.
But it’s not all bad news. You can begin taking steps today that may curb your risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia in the future.
Your efforts don’t have to be elaborate: A 2019 Japanese study that followed more than 800 older adults found that those who were more engaged in leisure activities, like games or tai chi, scored higher in tests of not only physical function but also cognitive ability and even mental health. The findings were reported in PLOS One.
While there are still no proven ways to prevent memory loss or dementia, you can do certain things to stave off cognitive decline. Up for the challenge? Here are seven brain builders that you can easily fit into your day’s schedule. Give one or more a go and set a goal of forming a new healthy habit.
Brain Booster #1: Toss Aside the Familiar
Out driving? Navigate your way home using a different route — or switch off the GPS. Learn something completely new.
In a 2014 study at the University of Texas at Dallas Center for Vital Longevity, adults who learned mentally demanding activities (such as digital photography or quilting) saw significant improvements in their working memory compared with those who merely socialized or engaged in activities that didn’t require as much brainpower.
Other ways to stretch your limits: Order supplies for a hobby you’ve always wanted to try. Or download a language app and dive into a language you never studied in high school. The key: Enjoy the challenge.
Brain Booster #2: Connect with an Acquaintance
Depression and stress can contribute to memory loss, states the NIH, but interacting with others is an excellent antidote. In a 2019 study at the University of Texas at Austin, older adults who interacted with a wide range of people were more likely to be physically active and have better emotional well-being.
Highly social older adults also have a lower risk of developing dementia later on, according to research from the NIH. Unfortunately, it can be easy to become more isolated as you age.
Go beyond your circle of family and close friends and try reaching out to an acquaintance — perhaps a person you cross paths with on your daily walks, or someone you used to see at the gym.
Arrange a socially distanced visit at the park — bring your own sandwiches and enjoy a picnic lunch. Or plan a get-together via a group video chat. And while you’re chatting, sip a cup of tea. A recent study in the journal Aging shows that daily tea consumption can reduce the risk of cognitive decline in older adults by 50%.
Brain Booster #3: Clear Off the Kitchen Counter
Pick one spot (notice we didn’t say room!) in your house that’s a dumping ground for clutter and get rid of the excess stuff.
That part of your kitchen counter that’s a magnet for junk mail is one idea. But some evidence from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine suggests that your nightstand, if it’s overflowing with books and memorabilia, is a better place to begin.
The 2015 research, which was published in the journal Sleep, shows that a messy, disorganized sleep space increases your risk for cognitive dysfunction, depression and insomnia. And a good night’s sleep is an important part of brain health.
Whatever spot you choose, know that you’re cleaning for a good cause. An organized household can help cut stress, eliminate anxiety and keep your brain healthier and happier.
Brain Booster #4: Play a Game
Games and puzzles create fun, spark joy and help you stay sharp and connected. The satisfaction of completing a challenging jigsaw or crossword puzzle can bring a feeling of productivity and accomplishment. And when you play games with friends or family — even if you play via a video conference call while you’re practicing safe social distancing — you’re building brain-healthy social connections.
Best of all, by playing games you can shed up to 10 years off your brain’s age. In a 2019 study at the U.K.’s University of Exeter, researchers found that older adults who regularly engaged in word puzzles had brain function equivalent to 10 years younger than their actual age.
And don’t discount video games. A 2017 study of older adults that was reported in PLOS One showed that six months of playing video games can help ward off cognitive decline by increasing the gray matter in the hippocampus — the part of your brain that helps form memories.
Don’t worry if you can’t meet up with others in person for a game night. There are lots of online and smartphone games that you can play with others from the comfort of your own couch. Better yet, learn a new game. Check out how-to-play bridge videos on YouTube. When you’ve got the basics, challenge three friends to a game via video chat or join an online bridge club.
Brain Booster #5: Pick Up Your Pace
Staying active is good for your heart and waistline. Turns out, it’s also been shown to reduce your risk of cognitive decline.
In a 2015 Sports Medicine study, regular exercise was shown to increase blood flow in the brain, helping create brain tissue. This creation of brain tissue can help increase your brain’s white and gray matter, which gets destroyed with dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Plus, exercise requires coordination, which stimulates brain regions associated with visual thinking. Exercise also helps reduce your risk of obesity and diabetes, two potential risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s, according to the NIH.
When you head out for a walk today, sneak in a few high-intensity intervals. It’s easy: Stroll for a couple of minutes at your regular pace, and then walk as fast as you can for a minute. Slow it back down to your usual stride, and repeat for as long as you feel comfortable.
In a 2019 Canadian study, older adults who exercised using these short bursts of more intense activity saw their performance on memory tests improve up to 30%. That’s because those bursts generate brand-new brain cells, which are much more active than the old ones in creating new memories, notes the report in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism.
Brain Booster #6: See Your Doctor
Why? Keeping up with the health checks and screenings that are recommended for your age group, gender and personal health history are a vital way to keep your brain and overall health in tip-top shape.
When you go in for those regular preventive visits, your primary care provider can help you to nip any little problems in the bud. Can’t get to the office? You may be able to set up a telehealth appointment.
If your doctor has prescribed medication, make sure you take it. And don’t forget to see your eye doctor regularly. For older adults, vision problems can lead to cognitive problems, and most vision loss is preventable, according to a report in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
Brain Booster #7: Hide the Salt Shaker
Do you have high blood pressure? Keeping it in check can significantly reduce your risk of cognitive impairment and dementia, notes the Alzheimer’s Association.
Your doctor may have prescribed medication to help control your blood pressure. But there are natural ways to manage it, such as spending time outdoors, meditating and cutting out nicotine, according to both the Alzheimer’s Association and the Mayo Clinic.
Nutrition is also important. The American Heart Association notes that a salty diet can gradually spike blood pressure.
Try preparing a low-sodium meal for dinner tonight. Craving stir-fry? The nutrition experts at the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggest using low-sodium soy sauce or low-sodium vegetable broth.
Another simple way to scale down your salt intake is to use aromatic herbs and spices, like basil and cumin, in your cooking.
Brain Booster #8: Go Nuts (and Berries)
When snack time rolls around, be ready to nibble on trail mix that’s heavy on walnuts and berries, both of which may offer your brain some protection from cognitive decline, says the NIH.
In a 2020 study at Loma Linda University Health Sciences Center, eating walnuts was shown to help slow cognitive decline in some at-risk groups of older adults. Bonus: They can also help lower cholesterol.
While you’ve got food on your mind, why not make a deal with yourself to eat an extra serving of vegetables or fruit today? Or to add some type of fish to your grocery list?
Piling your plate with a variety of fruits and vegetables — as well as whole grains and fish — helps fuel your brain. And go easy on the fats, says the NIH: A diet low in fat has been linked to a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease.