Although many people work hard to keep their body in shape and maintain a healthy weight and levels of blood pressure and cholesterol, it’s easy to assume that your brain doesn’t need much maintenance. After all—it works just fine on its own, right?
“Many people don’t think about the importance of keeping their brain healthy until their cognitive abilities start to decline,” says Joyce Liporace, MD, neurologist at Paoli Hospital. “Alzheimer’s and dementia become more significant risks as we age, but prevention starts much earlier than that.”
There are many factors that affect your risk for cognitive disorders like these, but a healthy lifestyle can help reduce your risk. Below, Dr. Liporace explores what you can do today.
Remember: what you feed your body, you feed your brain; make sure it’s healthy. For optimum brain health, maintain a low-fat diet that focuses on fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
While no diet in particular can guarantee a healthy brain or body, many physicians recommend following the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes healthy fats, flavoring foods with sodium alternatives like lemon and herbs, and limiting red meat intake.
Foods and nutrients like blueberries, turmeric, and omega-3 fatty acids have also been shown to support neurogenesis, the process by which new brain cells are produced in the adult brain. Look for opportunities to work nutrients like these into your diet.
Physical activity won’t just benefit your body—it has benefits for your brain, too. Regular cardiovascular exercise results in an elevated heart rate and increased blood flow to the brain and body, which can reduce dementia risk factors like high blood pressure and cholesterol, and has also been shown to help with neurogenesis.
Make plans with friends
Now, you’ll have a new excuse to make dinner plans: it’s good for your health.
“Social engagement—whether it’s joining a club, volunteering, or just meeting up with a group of friends—may reduce the risk for depression and delay the risk of dementia in older adults,” says Dr. Liporace.
Keep your brain healthy by looking for social engagement opportunities in your community or connecting with family and friends.
While spending time with others it’s important, you can strengthen your cognitive skills alone, too. Mental health exercises like crossword puzzles and Sudoku, learning new skills, or taking a class can stimulate your brain and help maintain brain function.
If you’re a smoker, now is the time to quit. Research published earlier this year found that smoking can damage the brain’s cortex, the area of the brain where memory, language, and perception occur. As a result, a thinner cortex is associated with mental decline.
“As we age, it’s normal for the brain’s cortex to become thinner, but smoking accelerates the process,” explains Dr. Liporace. “Although some thinning is out of your control, quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do for your body and your brain.”
Get plenty of sleep
Not getting enough sleep at night means more than just an extra coffee the next day. Those hours you spend recharging each night are important for creating memories, making sense of your day, and allowing your brain time to rid itself of toxins. Without those precious eight hours, you could be putting your brain at risk for problems like poor memory and cognitive function.
Are you wearing seatbelts? Helmets? Knowing the depths of water before you jump in? Taking precautions to prevent spinal cord and head injuries are key to keeping your brain safe. If you are affected by a head injury or a concussion, be sure you’re medically cleared before you return to activity.
Although taking steps like these can help keep improve your cognitive health, age and other factors may still affect your dementia risk. If you begin to notice signs of dementia, like feeling disoriented, difficulty communicating, or memory loss, make an appointment with your physician.