Who Knew: 8 Healthy Habits That Boost Your Brain

How the healthy choices you're already making can prevent dementia and keep your brain sharp.

By Marissa Laliberte
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    You like to learn new things

    Seniors who spent 12 weeks learning to use an iPad and various apps better remembered daily events and how to perform simple tasks than those in other groups who did activities that didn’t involve learning new skills, such as watching movies or socializing with others, according to a study in the journal The Gerontologist. Researchers believe it wasn’t just using the tablets that improved participants’ thinking, but the process of actively learning something new. Try it yourself instead of sticking with what you already know.

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    You play challenging games

    Certain types of games could give you—and your kids—a mental boost. Gamers who played the physics-based puzzle game Cut the Rope improved concentration, task-switching skills, and adapting to new situations more than those who played other types of video games, according to a study from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Researchers suggest complex brainteasers, which involve planning and readjusting strategies, might help improve memory.

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    You keep stress in check

    Go-to stress soothers—a daily walk around the block, a weekly massage, or relaxing with a magazine—may keep your brain healthy down the road. Long-term stress can spike levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which wears away at the short-term memory regions of the brain, according to a University of Iowa study.

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    You drink red wine

    Popular studies have linked red wine to a healthy heart; now a German study suggests it might help your brain, too. Researchers found that people who increased their intake of resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red wine, blueberries, and dark chocolate, improved their abilities to form new memories. Those who consumed 200 mg per day of resveratrol instead of a placebo for about six months were able to memorize more words over a 30-minute delay than they could before they started taking the capsules. The study found that those who’d taken resveratrol had changes in their hippocampus—the area of the brain most involved in memory—that helped neurons work together, which was linked to better cognitive performance. While a glass of red wine contains far less resveratrol than in the study, the researchers believe that, based on previous research, even these trace amounts could have positive effects on memory.

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    You cut back sugar

    Diets rich in sugar and other simple carbs could drain your brain, according to a Charité University Medical Centre study. The researchers found that even among healthy people without diabetes or glucose intolerance, those with lower blood sugar levels, as measured through blood tests, performed better on tests measuring how many words participants could memorize after a 30-minute delay.

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    You get the sleep you need

    Many studies have shown a connection between learning and sleep, but a study from New York University School of Medicine and Peking University Shenzhen Graduate School shows why this might be. Studying mice, researchers found that during slow-wave sleep the brain replays activities from the day, helping commit the events to memory. Forming new memories is difficult without sleep, according to the study. What’s more, a study from the Washington University School of Medicine found that people who woke up often during the night were five times more likely than those who had more restful sleep to have build-ups of amyloid plaque, which are characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s unclear whether the disrupted sleep causes dementia or whether Alzheimer’s-related brain changes alter sleep patterns, but it couldn’t hurt to get more sleep.

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    You pop ibuprofen to soothe pain

    Animal research from Newcastle University in England suggests that ibuprofen might reduce dementia risk by reducing inflammation. Mice that were genetically prone to inflammation aged twice as fast as other mice. They had more heart problems, grey hair, weight loss, and unsteady feet, researchers found. But when scientists pumped them with ibuprofen, the premature aging stopped, suggesting that inflammation might drive aging, rather than the other way around. However, ibuprofen had no effect on mice that weren’t at risk for inflammation. Researchers warn against taking ibuprofen solely as a condition against dementia, as the drug can raise risk of heart attack and stroke when used long term.

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    You mix up your exercise

    Women with mild cognitive impairment who walked or lifted weights improved their memories after six months, but those who only stretched and toned had worse memories than when they started, according to a study in The Journal of Aging Research. Both walking and lifting weights improved participants’ spatial memory, the type of memory that helps us remember our environment—such as the layout of a room, or where you put your keys—but those who got their exercise from walking had greater gains in verbal memory. Bottom line: Different types of exercises have different mental benefits, so try to get both endurance and weight training into your routine.

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