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by Nicole Pajer
Updated June 7, 2023
Want to help protect your brain? Research has found that certain lifestyle habits may support cognitive health. Many of these habits, such as sleeping well and socializing with friends, help you feel good on a daily basis, too. Here are seven steps women can take to help keep their bodies and minds healthy.
1. Take a few deep breaths
More than one in four women ages 45 to 64 feel overwhelmed by stress most days, according to a poll done for the American Psychological Association, published in the organization’s 2022 “Stress in America” report. Chronic stress can harm health, including brain health. Higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol were associated with lower brain volumes and impaired memory, especially in women, in a study of more than 2,200 young to middle-aged adults published in 2018 in Neurology. One way to combat the effects of stress is to take deep breaths, says Jessica Caldwell, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. She suggests “evenly matching the length of your inhale to your exhale,” as a meditation practice. Meditating regularly has been linked to health benefits. “Research shows even a few minutes a day lowers stress, inflammation and depression — and improves memory and mood,” Caldwell says.
2. Go for a walk
“Exercise gets your heart in shape so that it’s more efficient in pumping oxygen and nutrients to brain cells,” says Gary Small, M.D., chair of psychiatry at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey and author of the 2017 book The Small Guide to Alzheimer’s Disease. It also helps your body to produce brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, a protein produced in the brain’s cortex that stimulates neurons. You don't have to be a triathlete to reap the benefits, Small says. Any kind of aerobic activity will do, as long as you do it regularly. In a meta-analysis of 38 studies published in 2022 in Neurology, researchers found that people who exercised regularly had a 17 percent reduced risk of developing dementia compared with those who didn’t exercise. People with mild cognitive impairment, which can be a precursor to dementia, also seem to benefit from aerobic exercise, according to a review of 10 randomized controlled trials in Frontiers in Psychiatry in 2021. How much aerobic activity should you do? National guidelines recommend 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity exercise (30 minutes a day, five days a week, for instance) or 75 minutes a week of vigorous activity.
3. Schedule an annual exam
“Many medical conditions have been associated with memory decline and Alzheimer’s disease,” says Lisa Mosconi, director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Program at Weill Cornell Medical College and author of the 2022 book The XX Brain: The Groundbreaking Science Empowering Women to Maximize Cognitive Health and Prevent Alzheimer’s Disease. Examples include cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes. A 2020 report from the Global Council on Brain Health concluded that “keeping your heart and blood vessels healthy likely reduces your risk for cognitive decline and dementia.” Other issues — such as perimenopause, menopause and thyroid disease — can affect the brain as well. And depression, which affects more women than men, is associated with dementia, research shows.
Many of the conditions that can harm brain health can be treated, so be sure to see your physician annually. For women over 40, Mosconi says, an annual exam should include a full lipid and metabolic panel, which can help to identify a variety of health issues.
4. Try something new
Keeping your mind engaged with stimulating activities you enjoy can benefit brain health as you age, according to “Engage Your Brain,” a report from the Global Council on Brain Health. “Intellectual activity and mental stimulation are to the brain what exercise is to your muscles,” Mosconi says.
Try incorporating learning into everyday activities. If you like movies, periodically trade an action flick for something educational, such as a documentary or a TED Talk, she recommends. If you like playing chess, challenge your brain to learn a game such as bridge. If you like to read, put down your novel for a day and read an insightful self-help book — or a book about a topic that interests you, whether astronomy, history, cooking or business. Besides offering potential brain benefits, delving into new topics can spark conversations and be a source of enjoyment and fulfillment.
5. Do bedtime better
Forty to 60 percent of middle-aged and older women experience trouble sleeping, according to a 2018 article in the journal Chest. This is partially due to hormonal changes that women experience during perimenopause, along with stress and other health conditions. One of the best ways to improve your sleep, according to Mosconi, is to put down your devices “at least 45 minutes to an hour” before bedtime, as blue light can impact melatonin, which regulates the sleep-wake cycle. She also recommends training yourself to go to bed and to wake at the same time every day, which has been shown to have numerous benefits. Sleep, Mosconi says, “is really important for brain health because it’s the only chance that the brain has to really take care of itself.” Research suggests that during sleep, the brain flushes out toxins, a process that may help keep the brain healthy.
6. Phone a friend
Loneliness and isolation are risk factors for dementia and many other health issues, according to a 2023 report from the U.S. surgeon general. Picking up the phone to call a loved one or making plans with a friend will not only brighten your mood but may also benefit your brain. Keep making new connections: Among 2,249 women age 78 and up, those with a large social network had a 26 percent lower risk of dementia, according to a 2008 report in the American Journal of Public Health.
7. Follow a Mediterranean eating plan
Population studies have linked the Mediterranean eating plan — which emphasizes vegetables, fruit, whole grains, seafood and olive oil — with better brain function. In a study of 512 adults in their 60s and 70s, following a Mediterranean diet more closely was associated with greater brain volume, better memory and lower levels of two biomarkers related to Alzheimer’s disease, according to a 2021 report in Neurology. Mosconi’s research on women has shown similar results. “Using brain scans, we showed that the brain of a typical middle-aged woman on a Mediterranean diet looks five years younger than that of a woman who’s the same age but follows a Western diet,” Mosconi says. Scientists say there isn’t enough evidence to prove that the Mediterranean diet will prevent Alzheimer’s, but it’s clearly a heart-healthy diet, and there is ample evidence that what’s good for the heart is good for the brain, according to the Global Council on Brain Health.