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6 Habits to Support Your Brain Health

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There’s nothing like waking up well-rested after a good night’s sleep. And who doesn’t love visiting with friends over a homemade meal or listening to music and moving to the beat?

These simple pleasures aren’t indulgences to save for vacation or a rainy day. They are habits that support good brain health if done regularly. AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health, a collaborative of scientists, health professionals, scholars and policy experts, reviewed decades of research on the ways our habits and choices may affect our cognitive and mental health. Their findings support the six pillars of brain health: Eat right, be social, manage stress, engage your brain, exercise regularly and get restorative sleep.

The key is to make a habit of all six. “The more you do … the better,” said AARP’s Sarah Lenz Lock, executive director of the GCBH at a March 2023 meeting of the American Society on Aging. Lock was on stage with Sanjay Gupta, M.D., CNN’s chief medical correspondent and author of 12 Weeks to a Sharper You. Many of the pillars support each other. Regular exercise can help you sleep, for example, and socializing can ease the effects of stress.

No one can promise that following the six pillars will prevent dementia. But we know that lifestyle can profoundly affect the aging process and the risk of chronic illness. Gupta also pointed to the present-day benefits of following the six pillars. “I don't want to overpromise,” he said, “but what I can say is you will feel better.”

Let’s look at each pillar. As you’ll see, there’s a lot of room for choice — and fun.

1. Eat right. (Hint: You don’t have to choose between healthy and delicious.)

You hear a lot about eating for heart health, and, as it turns out, what’s good for the heart is good for the brain. And the best news: This does not mean endless steamed broccoli and egg whites. The traditional, delicious Mediterranean diet — with a foundation of vegetables and fruit, beans, seafood, olive oil, nuts and whole grains — captured the interest of researchers in the 1960s because of the region’s low rates of chronic illness and high life expectancy.

Scientific support for the Mediterranean diet’s benefits continues to grow. Researchers followed 16,160 people ages 30 to 70 in Spain who were part of the long-running nutrition study known as the EPIC study, described in Nutrients in 2021. Those who followed a Mediterranean diet most closely over 20 years had a 20 percent lower risk for dementia than those who did not follow a Mediterranean diet.

There are more brain-healthy ways of eating, such as the traditional Okinawan diet from Japan, which emphasizes purple and orange sweet potatoes, plus other colorful vegetables, as well as offshoots of the Mediterranean diet like the MIND diet. All of these diets emphasize plant foods like vegetables, fruit, beans and grains and limit highly processed foods, fried foods, red meat and other foods high in saturated fat, sodium and sugar. The GCBH further recommends including fish and seafood, nuts, poultry and low-fat dairy.

Experiment with recipes to find dishes you enjoy.

2. Get restorative sleep. (Hint: Quantity and quality matter.)

The notion that we need less sleep as we get older is, in a word, bunk. It’s true that some of the changes that accompany aging can make solid shut-eye elusive. But good-quality sleep, and enough of it, is as important as ever as we age.

There’s research showing a link between poor sleep and dementia in older adults. A study that examined data from nearly 8,000 adults over 25 years, starting at midlife, offered strong evidence that poor sleep can be a culprit in dementia. Those who consistently slept less than six hours at ages 50, 60 and 70 were 30 percent more likely to develop dementia later in life, according to a 2021 report in Nature Communications.

Your brain does important work while you sleep, flushing away toxins including a protein that is linked to Alzheimer’s. Researchers hypothesize that chronic sleep loss may lead to a buildup of toxins that raises the risk of dementia.

Be sure you’re setting yourself up for a good night’s sleep, and talk with your doctor if you regularly have trouble sleeping or wake up feeling unrefreshed. A type of therapy called CBT-I has been shown to help people with insomnia, and obstructive sleep apnea, which people often don’t realize they have, is treatable.

3. Exercise regularly. (Hint: Move more and sit less.)

Move your body! And keep it up. That, in a nutshell, is the takeaway from scads of studies linking physical activity to better brain health. If you’re intimidated by visions of spandex and barbells, keep in mind that there are endless ways to be active, from walking a few blocks to taking a Zumba class.

Much of the research on how exercise improves brain health focuses on the hippocampus, which governs learning and memory. As the hippocampus shrinks — typically after age 65 — the risk for memory loss rises. But regular exercise may reduce or reverse that shrinkage, according to a review of 22 studies reported in 2020 in Hippocampus. Recent research also points to the power of exercise to increase levels of a brain chemical called BDNF, nicknamed “Miracle Gro for the brain.”

Both formal exercise and everyday activities like taking the stairs and gardening can benefit brain health, according to the GCBH. To work on your aerobic fitness, pick activities you enjoy that get your heart rate up, whether it’s walking, swimming, biking, hiking or dancing around your living room. If you can work your way up to doing 150 minutes of aerobic exercise a week (that’s just 30 minutes each for five days) and two weekly strength-training sessions, that’s ideal. But remember: Some exercise is better than none.

The brain health benefits of exercise go beyond thinking skills. Regular physical activity is linked to lower rates of depression and anxiety, according to a research review published in 2020 in Annual Review of Medicine.

4. Be social. (Hint: We are wired to connect.)

Laughing with friends, gathering with family, chit-chatting with a stranger — these things may seem frivolous, but they’re profoundly important for our health. Too many Americans are lonely and isolated, according to a 2023 report from U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. The health consequences can be as bad as a 50 percent increased risk of developing dementia for older adults — and a higher risk of premature death, similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

The good news is that social interaction tends to improve well-being, cognitive function and mood. A study of 312 U.S. adults ages 70 to 90 who had more pleasant daily social interactions showed that they had better cognitive performance that day and two days following, as reported in 2021 in PLOS ONE.

Strengthening your social ties can start with simple acts, like calling an old friend or doing something kind for a neighbor. By taking small steps to strengthen our relationships and engage with others,] and by supporting community efforts to rebuild social connection, we can rise to meet this moment together.

5. Manage stress. (Hint: It’s not what happens; it’s how we respond.)

Stress can be a good thing. It motivates us to climb mountains (metaphorical or literal) and try new things.

The body has an elaborate system to cope with occasional stress. For instance, cortisol — a hormone that’s part of our fight-or-flight reaction — increases in the blood during stressful times. When the stress eases, cortisol levels fall. But chronic stress is a different story. When cortisol stays elevated, it can damage the brain’s hippocampus. Unrelenting stress can also trigger inflammation that can harm the brain. Among more than a million Swedish men and women ages 18 to 65, chronic stress increased the risk of both mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease, according to a 2023 report in Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy.

Frequent worry can contribute to chronic stress as much as bad things actually happening. The upshot: Make stress relief as integral to your routine as brushing your teeth. Other pillars of brain health, like regular exercise and socializing, are healthy ways to manage stress — as are practicing yoga or meditating.

6. Engage your brain. (Hint: Keep on learning.)

You know that staying physically active benefits your health. Staying mentally active does, too. Engaging in activities that stimulate your brain may protect against cognitive decline, according to the GCBH. Learning and developing skills may also increase “cognitive reserve” — the brain’s ability to adapt and cope with challenges.

In two studies, 42 adults ages 58 to 86 learned at least three new skills simultaneously over three months — for example, a new language, music composition and drawing. Halfway through, the participants’ cognitive abilities had increased to levels similar to those of middle-aged adults, researchers reported in 2023 in The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences. A year after the experiments were complete, participants’ executive function remained improved.

This doesn’t mean you have to enroll in a full schedule of classes. But staying mentally active — by playing a musical instrument, reading books or learning photography — may keep your brain in good shape. So follow your interests and stay engaged.

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