Simple Strategies to Improve Brain Health
Boost Your Brain Health
Your brain weighs about three pounds but is arguably the most important part of your body. It’s responsible for all the things that make you you: your thoughts, memories, and emotions. Previously, scientists believed that once we reached adulthood, our brains couldn’t change. But “we now know that our brains can continue to grow throughout life and that our habits and choices can shape that process,” says Allan J. Hamilton, M.D., a neurosurgery professor at the University of Arizona and a coauthor of the new edition of Younger Next Year (Buy It, $16, barnesandnoble.com). Here’s how to boost and strengthen your brain health.
Meditate to Work Through Discomfort
Meditation boosts your brain power from every angle. It helps you de-stress, increases your memory, and ups your ability to focus. It can also help your brain in a way that helps your workout: Zenning out helps your brain have better control over processing pain and emotions, according to a study in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. After four 20-minute sessions, participants who had a 120 degree piece of metal touch their calf reported it 40 percent less painful and 57 percent less uncomfortable than before their training. Those kind of numbers could get you pretty far when you’re at mile 25 of a marathon or only halfway through your burpee set. (Related: All the Benefits of Meditation You Should Know About)
Use Your Left Hand to Stoke Creativity
The right side of your brain includes your creativity centers. It also controls the left side of your body. By using your left hand (to write, to brush your teeth, etc.), you boost activity in that right hemisphere, which can improve your creativity scores nearly 50 percent, demonstrates a study from Israel. The study authors say some other brain functions like verbal or just clenching and unclenching your left hand could improve spatial ability.
Tend a Garden to Boost Your Mood
People suffering from depression had significantly improved moods after three months of digging, planting, picking, and watering for six hours a week, shows a study from Norway. A bunch of research has linked spending time in nature to lower stress levels and improved mood, the authors explain. And researchers from the University of Bristol say exposure to some microorganisms in soil could trigger the release of serotonin — a fell-good brain chemical. (Ready to get started? Use this guide to create your own indoor garden.)
Strength Train to Strengthen Memories
Hitting up the gym is key to supporting brain health. Research shows that 20 minutes of resistance exercise can boost your episodic memory performance — or your long-term memory about specific events — according to a study from the Georgia Institute of Technology. When people pumped iron right after looking at photos, they remembered 10 percent more two days later than those who didn’t hit the gym. And it’s not just weights — the researchers say bodyweight exercises would likely produce the same memory-boosting benefits.
Drink Green Tea to Focus
Theanine, an amino acid found almost exclusively in green tea leaves, blocks the binding of certain chemicals to stress receptors in your brain, preventing anxiety from sapping your focus, shows Japanese research. Meanwhile, the caffeine in green tea fights fatigue and keeps you alert and attentive, shows a study in the Journal of Neuropharmacology. To get the brain power benefits, pour yourself a cup of these craft tea drinks.
Play Tetris to Improve Your Mind’s Efficiency
Manipulating tumbling blocks for a few minutes a day can expand your brain’s stockpiles of “gray matter,” shows research from the University of California, Irvine. Gray matter contains most of your brain’s neurons, which are involved in all mental tasks. Like a muscle that’s been strengthened with weights, pumping up your gray matter with Tetris is like injecting more power into your noodle, the research suggests.
Jog to Multitask Better
Sedentary adults who started jogging a few days a week improved their ability to juggle different tasks by 30 percent, found research from the University of Texas at Dallas. Exercise increases blood flow, which helps saturate your brain with the oxygen and nutrients it needs to operate at its best, the study authors say. Any physical activity done regularly should benefit your brain power, they add. (Related: Multitasking with Technology Can Rewire Your Brain)
Nap to Solidify Your Memory
After 40 minutes of sleep, people improved their scores on a memory game by 25 percent compared to those who hadn’t had a quick snooze, shows German research. While short-term memories are stored in your brain’s hippocampus, they’re “fragile” and easily lost, the study authors say. Sleep somehow transfers new memories to your noodle’s neocortex, where they’re stored more permanently, improving your ability to recall them, the authors explain. So by all means, take a quick power nap if you can — it can do your brain health some good. (Related: I Tried Taking 15-Minute Naps at Work, and Here's What Happened)
Text More for Better Motor Skills
You may think technology at your fingertips is hurting your brain, but swiping on a smartphone can actually strengthen your brain health: The thumb dexterity you develop using a touchscreen increases the activity and size of certain areas of your brain, reports a new study in the journal Current Biology. Compared to flip phone users, smartphone participants had completely different activity in their cerebral cortex — the part of the brain associated with voluntary movement, coordination of sensory information, and learning and memory. (FWIW, phone-life balance is still important to achieve.)
Eat Vitamin B-Rich Foods to Prevent Cognitive Decline
Older people who ate modest amounts of B vitamins every day for two years lost just 0.76 percent their brain's neurons each year, compared to a 1.08 percent annual drop among people ingesting a placebo, shows a study from the University of Oxford. Research has tied a greater neuron loss rate with lower final cognitive test scores. But B-vitamin-rich foods, such as dark green vegetables, eggs, meat, and fish, may break down an amino acid called homocysteine, which is linked with that cognitive impairment, the Oxford study team says.
Work Out Harder to Make Decisions Easier
Compared to sedentary participants, people who exercised had 32 percent higher levels of a brain-derived protein (known as BDNF) in the body, believed to help with decision making, higher thinking, and learning. And those who worked at a vigorous intensity (80 percent of their max heart rate) and for more than 40 minutes had the highest changes of a significant BDNF elevation, according to a study from Weber State University in Utah. (Try these HIIT exercises to boost your brain health.)
Drink Water to Speed Reaction Time
Compared to thirsty people, reaction times jumped 14 percent among a better-hydrated group. Even mild dehydration appears to suck resources from your brain, Journal of Nutrition research shows. Water is so important for survival that your brain’s “drink something!” warning system, which fires up when you’re thirsty, may draw resources from the rest of your noggin. The best way to monitor dehydration — and keep your brain health in check — is to track your pee. If you haven’t gone for several hours, or if your urine is yellow (not clear), drink up, they say. (Related: What Happened When I Drank Twice As Much Water As I Usually Do for a Week)
Eat Sage for Better Recall
An hour after ingesting sage, women’s scores on a word recall task jumped 35 percent. The U.K. researchers point to an antioxidant chemical called acetylcholine. Lower levels of this chemical have been charted among Alzheimer’s patients, and additional research has tied acetylcholine to memory function. The people in the study swallowed just 50 microliters of sage oil in capsule form — an amount so small that eating the herb in almost any amount should do help your brain health.
Change Your Routine to Boost Brain Power
Whether you spend your free time scrolling through TikTok's food hacks or watching Netflix, the same mental tasks over and over again reinforce your brain’s synaptic connections related to those activities. That helps you get better (and requires less brain power), shows research from McGill University. But as those synaptic connections grow stronger, the rest of your brain sits idle, becoming weaker, the researchers explain. To counteract this effect, switch up your routines — everything from your workout to your day-to-day activities, suggests a study from Concordia University. Even taking an unfamiliar route to work or cooking your dinner a different way helps fire up dormant brain pathways, which could increase IQ, memory, and other brain functions, studies suggest.
De-Stress to Be Less Forgetful
Those moments where you can’t remember where you put your keys or that lunch date you were supposed to have? Thank your hectic schedule: “Most short-term memory loss is stress-related,” Carolyn Brockington, M.D., director of the Stroke Program at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, previously told Shape. “We're all running around doing a million things, and although many people think they can multitask well, the brain sometimes has trouble moving from one thing to another and back again.” In order to commit something to memory and keep your brain health in check, you need to concentrate more, and that means making self-care a priority.
Eat Vitamin-Rich Foods for Better Memory
Almonds (like many nuts and seeds) have high levels of vitamin E, which has been shown to help reduce the risk of cognitive impairment. Blueberries are rich in flavonoids which improve spatial memory — your brain’s ability to retain the environment around you — and antioxidants, which lessen the inflammation that contributes to memory problems. Even chocolate’s rich antioxidant profile has been shown to help boost cognitive function, reduce the risk of dementia, and improve performance on brain teasers.
Stay Connected to Support Overall Brain Health
"The brain is a social organ,” says Dr. Hamilton. In a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, when participants who were completely isolated for a period of time were shown pictures of people interacting, there was activity in their substantia nigra, a part of the brain that has been linked with hunger. “This suggests that our brains are very sensitive to the experience of being alone and that social contact is a basic need,” says study author Livia Tomova, Ph.D.
“Tons of hormones and peptides are released with human contact,” says Dr. Hamilton. When we’re deprived of that interaction, inflammatory markers rise and brain hormones and neurotransmitters can diminish and well-being can deteriorate, he says.
To connect with loved ones during the pandemic, Dr. Hamilton recommends scheduling regular video calls rather than texting. Seeing a face and hearing a voice triggers your brain to release feel-good hormones, he says.
Exercise Five Days a Week to Prevent Cognitive Decline
A regular workout habit can activate stem cells that were dormant, encouraging neural growth, new connections, and increased brain volume, says Dr. Hamilton. When researchers measured people’s levels of physical activity for a week and then scanned their brains, they found that higher levels of moderate to vigorous activity were associated with increased cortical thickness (a measure associated with brain health and cognition) in certain brain regions. When kept up, this may help prevent cognitive decline, reports a recent study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
Being active promotes the release of proteins called neurotropic factors, says study author Ryan Stanley Falck, Ph.D. This, in turn, “stimulates the creation of new brain cells and blood vessels in the brain, which helps maintain its structure and function.” Scientists don’t know why, but aerobic exercise seems to boost cognitive abilities, especially decision-making, while strength training improves memory and recall. Dr. Hamilton advises doing aerobics three times a week and strength training twice weekly.
Follow a Mediterranean Diet to Protect Your Brain
A diet that’s good for your body, especially your heart, is also good for your brain, experts say. But a few foods and nutrients may give it extra power. “For your brain to work the way it’s supposed to, it has to have enormous stores of good fats,” says Dr. Hamilton. Omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA, found in wild-caught fish and seafood is a key part of brain cell membranes and is necessary to grow new brain cells and connections. Plant-based fats like olive oil, avocados, and nuts are also beneficial. Research has found that eating one to two ounces of walnuts a day may boost your brain and protect it from declining as you get older.
Consuming fruits and vegetables can also keep your brain healthy and happy. An analysis published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that the more fruits and vegetables people eat, the lower their risk of depression, which may be because produce is loaded with antioxidants as well as vitamins necessary to make neurotransmitters. One of the smartest things you can do for brain health: Follow a Mediterranean diet, which is full of plant foods and fish and has been shown to benefit your brain and keep it healthy throughout life.
Challenge Yourself to Help Your Brain Grow
"The brain loves to be pushed,” says Dr. Hamilton. So while working on crosswords might be fun, what your brain is actually after is the tough stuff. For instance, learning a new language may help it grow, particularly in areas that involve flexible thinking, attention, and memory, one study found.
And consider piano lessons: People who played an instrument in midlife generally did better on cognitive ability tests in their later years than non-musicians, according to other research. Playing music may make your brain more efficient, building up a reserve, so that it’s able to stay nimble even in the face of age-related changes, says study author Sebastian Walsh, a researcher at the University of Cambridge. These activities, as well as having an intellectually demanding job, stimulate the release of neurotropic factors, and push the brain to maximize its ability to form new connections, adapt, and change, says Dr. Hamilton. (Or try learning how to kayak this summer.)