Brain Blast!

8 Easy Ways To Keep Your Brain Young

You can dramatically decrease your risk of dementia with just a few easy lifestyle changes.

Three runners standing outdoors, stretching.
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You’re getting old, but your brain doesn’t have to. “We can do things, small lifestyle changes...to slow down the aging process of the brain,” says Marc Milstein, Ph.D., an international speaker on brain health and author of The Age-Proof Brain: New Strategies to Improve Memory, Protect Immunity, and Fight Off Dementia. “We see really clearly in these new studies that by doing these changes, we can lower the risk of memory loss and dementia.”

And with the high prevalence of dementia and Alzheimer’s in the U.S. — more than 1 in 3 seniors has at least one at their time of death — and the number of seniors in the country with Alzheimer’s expected to rise from 6 million to 13 million by 2050, it’s crucial to keep your brain healthy. Luckily, doing so isn’t all that hard.

Little changes like taking a 30-minute walk each day or limiting the amount of processed foods in your diet are simple and, new research shows, astoundingly effective. Within the past few years researchers have found there’s a lot we can do at all to fight off memory loss, dementia, and Alzheimer’s, Milstein says. “The dual benefit is that the things that slow down memory loss progression also help with focus, productivity, and mood. So you get a benefit that day, but you also protect your brain down the road.”

Here, Milstein describes the little things you can do each day that add up over the decades to protect your brain.

1. Manage Anxiety And Depression

“Our mental health — rates of anxiety, depression — they've gone up significantly over the last couple of years. That's not only important for our day-to-day mental health. We're seeing in these new studies that if depression or anxiety is not managed, they raise the risk of memory loss years later. So our mental health in our 30s and our 40s impacts our brain health years down the road.”

2. Sleep Better

“One thing we can do now is prioritize our sleep. Sleep is a time when you clean your brain, when you wash it out and remove those toxins and waste. So we really want to prioritize sleep our whole life, but especially in our 30s and 40s, because those are times in our life where sleep quality can diminish based upon responsibilities and some physiological changes too.

“If you look at the general population, the amount of sleep you need is somewhere between seven and nine hours. Past nine can be okay — definitely there's some people who need more. But past nine, check in with your doctor and make sure there's not an underlying reason why you're needing more than nine.

“Some people do perfectly fine with less than seven, but it's a really small percentage of the population that's mentally and physically healthy getting less than seven. Most people are struggling, or they're tired, and it's causing a negative impact. But there's a group of people who can get less than seven. It's based upon some aspects of genetics. We call them short sleepers. If you’re sleeping less than seven hours per night, we want to really make sure you're one of those people and that you're doing fine, that you're mentally and physically healthy getting less than seven hours.

“Sleep is a time when not only do you make connections of the things you learned that day stronger and stick, but it's also a time when you're washing waste and trash out of your brain. People do much better in their performance athletically and mentally if they get a good night's sleep. And then also there’s this protective mechanism down the road.

“You actually prepare for every night's sleep in the morning by getting outside in natural light. Your brain basically has this clock mechanism that starts to count down when you get outside in the morning, that helps you fall asleep at night. So for busy people, just think about soon after getting up, within about a half hour, get outside for a quick walk for about 10 minutes. That really helps people fall asleep at night.”

3. Challenge Yourself And Learn Something New

“Continuing to challenge the brain and learn new things is really important. Sometimes in our 30s and 40s, we can get stuck. When we were kids, we were trying new things. In our 30s and 40s, we can be very focused on our career or other things, and there might not be much newness to it. We might be getting more and more skilled at a certain set of skills, which is great. But doing things outside of your comfort zone that are new and different to the brain and keeping it challenged is really important, because that builds new connections in the brain. Every time you learn something new, you make a connection. When you revisit information that you already have learned, you strengthen old connections, which is still good, but we want to be making new connections.

“Think about learning new things outside of your comfort zone. It could be a new subject, but it can also be physical learning like yoga. It could be a new sport. It could just be being social. When you’re out with people — or you're on a phone call, or you're Zooming, or you're meeting for coffee — you're engaged, you're learning new things. And feeling isolated and lonely is a risk factor for not only anxiety, depression, and memory loss, but it's also a risk for dementia. So we want to encourage people to be social.”

4. Focus On Your Heart Health

“Be aware in your 30s and 40s of underlying conditions like heart disease and high blood pressure. We might not think of these things at those ages, but they impact brain health in those years and down the road. Having blood pressure more in the range of 110 over 70 lowers the risk of memory loss decades down the road.

“Your heart supplies your brain with oxygen. And even little dips in the amount of oxygen that your brain gets can impact how you can focus and remember that day. But over time, if blood pressure is too high or too low, you're either sending too little blood to your brain or you're sending it at a pressure that is actually damaging brain cells. So being on top of it early is really important.”

5. And Diabetes

“If diabetes isn't treated, it raises the risk of memory loss by about 60% to 65%, which is staggering. The mechanism there is that the brain runs on sugar. If sugar isn't being metabolized properly in the brain or in the body, the brain cells are basically starving, and that can cause them to not function properly.

“If your body is spending too much time trying to manage insulin and blood sugar because diabetes or pre-diabetes is causing that system to not work effectively, then your body diverts attention away from clearing out trash in the brain to focus on metabolism and insulin. It's kind of like how your desk gets messy when you're busy because you don't have time to clean it. Same thing in the brain. If you're focused on a dysfunction or trying to deal with metabolism and sugar and insulin, your brain deprioritizes or doesn't have time to deal with the trash waste removal.”

6. Stop Stressing Out

“The cortisol hormone, which is a stress hormone, is actually really good. Stress is really good in a moment. It's good to have things you want to get done. It's good to have challenges you want to tackle. We want to embrace some stress. It actually keeps your brain functioning really well.

“But if the stress is too much or too often, then that same cortisol actually is damaging and can shrink parts of the brain involved in memory. In anxiety and depression, for example, we see much higher levels of cortisol being released, too much, too often, chronically. That can be damaging to the brain.”

7. Go For A Nature Walk

“Get some exercise. It could even just be brisk walking if you're very busy.

“Walking about 30 minutes a day — it doesn't have to all be done at the same time — has been shown to lower the risk of memory loss and dementia by about 60%. So for busy people, think about taking walks throughout the day, getting a dose of nature — you don't have to go to a national park, but people who spend about 10 minutes in a park or a backyard or a flower bed, their stress levels drop significantly. Again, stress is good, but you want to take a break from it.

“They did a study in Japan where they had people stare at a plant on their desk for two minutes, and their stress levels dropped. There's something about the brain and nature. And they found that if people sprayed the plant with a little bit of water, their stress levels went down faster and further. So taking care of something like a plant is really good for your brain health.”

8. Protect Your Immune System And Limit Inflammation

“The immune system is designed to protect us, fight off colds, viruses, bacteria, things like that. But the immune system can make mistakes, and it overreacts. We know there's autoimmune conditions where the immune system attacks the joints or the gut or the heart. Now we're seeing that the immune system can overreact and attack the brain, and that inflammation in the brain from that immune response can raise the risk of dementia. It can damage brain cells impacting memory; it can impact mood.

We want to do the things we can to keep inflammation in our body low, because that inflammation can travel from the body and basically attack the brain. The good news is that a lot of the same things that we've talked about for your brain are really good for balancing your immune system. One thing we haven't discussed that's related to inflammation very strongly is thinking about what you're eating.

Diet is very individualized, but if you want to think about something really simple, think about most of the time eating whole, natural foods. If you look at your plate and see a rainbow of colors of fruits and vegetables in most meals, you're doing a lot of good things for your brain health. There's certain components, these phytochemicals, that are anti-inflammatory. Healthy fiber can be very good too for the brain and the gut.

In terms of foods you want to minimize, look at packaging. If you can't pronounce the ingredients — if it looks like a chemistry experiment gone wrong, it's all processed and has additives and preservatives — those things can be inflammation-inducing.