It’s commonly known that brain function can decrease as you age, and one of the greatest fears for older adults is the onset of cognitive decline, poor mental health and Alzheimer’s disease. Diminished cognitive function can negatively impact your quality of life and lead to a decline in your overall health and well-being.
It used to be thought that the brain was a static organ, unable to regenerate and heal, and that cognitive function peaked for people at a young age. But extensive research over many years has begun to prove otherwise. It’s now believed the brain can in fact heal and rebuild itself, just like other parts of the body.
This means you can maintain and even improve your overall brain function and even reduce the risk of memory loss, dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. And you can do it at any age. This is great news that’s giving older adults hope for a high quality of life for years to come.
Here are a few tips on how to improve your brain health with simple habits and lifestyle changes that will also improve your overall health and well-being.
1. Eat a Brain-Healthy Diet
Certain foods increase brain health, and other foods can decrease it. The good news is that many brain healthy foods are delicious and satisfying to eat. Foods that are rich in Omega 3 fatty acids are beneficial for brain function and great for your overall health.
Olive oil and avocados are rich in healthy fatty acids, and green leafy vegetables are full of vitamins and minerals your body and brain need to function and heal. Research, like studies cited by the Mayo Clinic, shows that the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in vegetables, fruits, fish, nuts and healthy oils can reduce the risk of memory loss and dementia. If you’re a fan of dark chocolate, there’s great news. High-quality dark chocolate contains flavanols, which are shown to improve brain health.
Another diet, called DASH, was developed specifically to increase brain health. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is known to cause damage to your body and brain over time. A newly developed diet, known as MIND, has researchers excited about its benefits on brain health. MIND is a combination of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet. Talk with a health care professional about the diet that’s right for you.
You should also try to minimize your intake of sugar, keep your alcohol consumption to one or two drinks per day, eat moderate amounts of red meat to avoid harmful fats and cholesterol, and be aware of your salt intake because it can contribute to high blood pressure.
Physical activity is widely known to be one of the healthiest lifestyle choices a person can make, and can greatly reduce your risk factor for impaired brain function and cognitive decline. Research shows that aerobic exercise and movement of your large muscles, especially your legs, increases blood flow, delivering vital nutrients and keeping your brain healthy.
Regular exercise can reduce high blood pressure, help you maintain your balance to reduce the risk of a fall, maintain a healthy blood sugar level, and elevate your mood. These are all crucially important factors for maintaining and even improving brain function.
Even moderate exercise, like 20 to 30 minutes, four to five days a week, can have a tremendously positive impact on your health.
Along with proper exercise, you also need to get adequate rest. Sleep is an important part of how to improve brain health. Scientists think that during sleep, your body is able to eliminate harmful substances in your brain called beta-amyloids, which are proteins that are found in high amounts in the brains of patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
You want to get seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep per night. And constant sleep is key. Segmented sleep of three or four hours at a time does not give you the same brain health benefits. You need to give your brain time to rest, store memories effectively, build new cells and neural pathways, and flush out harmful substances like beta-amyloids.
If you have trouble sleeping through the night, talk with your doctor. There are medications that can help, but some can have negative side effects or can interact with other medications. Before you take medicine to help you sleep, try some new habits. Turn off electronics at least 30 minutes before bed. Research shows this calms your mind. Avoid caffeine starting in the afternoon, and try to go to bed at the same time every night so your body becomes accustomed to regular rest.
4. Reduce Stress
One of the best ways to relax is to manage stress. This can not only improve the quality of your sleep, but can lower blood pressure and reduce your body’s production of stress hormones, which can be harmful at high levels over time. Plus, it gives you the added benefit of feeling happier in your day-to-day life.
Feeling periods of stress is normal, but if you’re anxious all the time, your health will be negatively affected. There are things you can do to manage stress in your life. Learning to practice mindfulness can be beneficial. Going for a walk and working out your thoughts is a great habit. You can keep a journal and jot down worries you may have. This is a way to let them out of your system and feel like you’re dealing with them.
You may consider meditation, yoga, tai chi, or another form of relaxation exercise. And if you stop and think about all the things in life you have to be grateful for, you’ll enjoy a more positive outlook. Even during difficult times, you may find that you’re still able to appreciate a beautiful sunset, a photo of your grandchild, or the taste of a good cup of tea.
5. Exercise Your Brain
If you think about how to improve brain health, it makes perfect sense to go straight to the source. Just like physical exercise improves muscle and cardiovascular health, exercising your mind is shown to improve brain health. The term “use it or lose it” really does apply here. A great deal of research, like studies on aging and the arts by the National Endowment of the arts, shows that activities that make you think stimulate the connections between the nerve cells in your brain and may even encourage the growth of new connections and new brain cells.
Games like crossword puzzles or sudoku are great brain-healthy activities, but you can also consider so many other ways to engage your mind. You can take a class, learn a new hobby, study a new language, or learn to play a musical instrument. You can join a book club, take a dance class, or volunteer at a local charity, church group or school. These sorts of activities also allow you to become socially active.
Social interaction provides great benefits for the health and wellness of older adults. It helps prevent feelings of loneliness that can lead to depression, which is believed to contribute to cognitive decline. Being in a group leads to conversation, physical activity and mental stimulation. You’re listening to other people, formulating thoughts and articulating responses, which stimulates several different parts of your brain.
When you’re interacting with others doing something you enjoy, you’re also having fun and getting more out of life.
If you’re considering how to improve brain health, there are so many easy and fun steps you can take. Not only will you reduce the risk of cognitive decline and memory loss, but you’ll also be living a healthier, more vibrant and satisfying life.
To find out more about brain-healthy activities and programs at Beacon Hill, fill out the form at the bottom of the page.