6 Best Ways to Keep Your Brain Healthy as You Age, According to an Expert
A COGNITIVE SPECIALIST SHARES HIS BEST BRAIN-BOOSTING TIPS.
You may be well aware of the outward ways in which your body changes with age, especially when it comes to new wrinkles or added pounds. But experts say that inside, age-related changes can be just as stark, even though you may not see them happening.
In particular, your brain is constantly undergoing changes—and not always for the better. According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), many people experience a decrease in blood flow, slowed communication between neurons, an increase of inflammation, and reduced mass in certain parts of the brain. "These changes in the brain can affect mental function, even in healthy older people," their experts write.
So how can you maintain a healthy brain, despite the high likelihood of some natural decline? We checked in with Scott Kaiser, MD, geriatrician and Director of Geriatric Cognitive Health for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, to find out the best ways to keep your brain healthy as you age. Read on to learn his top tips for better brain health starting now.
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Kaiser says that if you do just one thing for your brain health, you should make time for regular exercise. "Jump, squat, march, raise those arms," he says. "The benefits of regular physical activity are so numerous—especially for our brain health—that, in a sense, exercise is the closest thing we have to a miracle drug."
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week, Kaiser says the brain-boosting benefits start at much lower levels. "Even a ten-minute burst can yield great results," he says. "For a bonus, make it a dance routine, as studies indicate that exercises that combine physical and cognitive challenges can especially improve memory and brain health."
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Besides staying physically active, eating a healthy diet can also help your brain stay healthy. "What we eat plays a critical role in determining our health and well-being and when it comes to maintaining brain health," says Kaiser, adding that "the 'farmacy' is where you will find the best medicine."
By that, he means eating plenty of whole, plant-based foods, such as "green leafy vegetables, berries, and other foods rich in 'phytonutrients'—chemicals that plants produce to keep themselves healthy—can be neuroprotective and reduce our Alzheimer's risk."
Practice mindful breathing
Studies have shown that deep breathing exercises can have both psychological and physiological effects on the brain.
"Taking some mindful breaths—simply bringing your attention to your breathing and taking a moment to appreciate life—can initiate a very positive cascade of events in our mind and body," explains Kaiser. "This simple practice can actually unlock the power of meditation and help curb stress while initiating a 'relaxation response' in your body—slowing heart rate, relaxing blood vessels to lower blood pressure, boosting immune factors, lowering blood sugar, improving mood, and more."
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Maintaining social ties is crucial to keeping your brain healthy. "Social isolation and loneliness have negative health impacts on par with obesity, physical inactivity, and smoking 15 cigarettes a day," Kaiser notes, adding that they're also associated with an approximately 50 percent higher risk of dementia. "Simply taking a moment to connect with someone—even through a brief phone call—can reduce feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression, and deliver brain-protecting benefits, he says.
Not sure where to turn for that feeling of connectivity? Kaiser suggests volunteering as a way of getting started. "Giving back and having a strong sense of purpose in life are secret ingredients of healthy aging and some of the most powerful ways we can improve our brain."
Keeping up with your hobbies can also help fight off cognitive decline as you age, Kaiser tells Best Life.
"Singing, playing an instrument, painting, and writing a poem are just a few examples of the type of creative expression that improve brain health. And while certain activities, like playing an instrument throughout your life, are associated with a reduced risk of dementia, there are benefits to the arts and creativity at any age," he says, adding, "it is never too late to try something new!"
Finally, getting regular shuteye can have a tremendous impact on your neurological health—especially as you get older. That's why Kaiser recommends establishing a consistent bedtime routine that includes shutting down electronic devices at an early hour, lowering the lights and thermostat, and sticking to a regular sleep schedule when possible.
"The quantity and quality of your sleep—needed to clear debris, 'reset' neural networks, and provide downtime to various systems in our brains—have profound physiological impacts that impact our day to day thinking, memory, and mood as well as our long-term risk of cognitive decline and dementia," says Kaiser.
Speak with your doctor to learn more about maintaining your cognitive health later in life.