20 Genius Habits Your 80-Year-Old Brain Will Thank You for Doing Today
Prevent those senior moments from plaguing your senior years. Here’s what you can do to keep your mental skills sharp as you age.
How do you keep your brain young?
A rich new area of science is analyzing which healthy habits best keep your mind and memory healthy in the 40s and beyond. Kenneth S. Kosik, MD, co-director of the Neuroscience Research Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has studied which habits most powerfully boost our cognitive function. Here he shares the most up-to-date research from innovative labs plus the best brain-boosting tips from his book Outsmarting Alzheimer’s. These are daily habits of people with impressive memory.
Play games with your frontal lobe
Whether you’re deliberating a chess move or bluffing at cards, you’re also giving the frontal lobe, the area of your brain that handles executive function, a workout. “The frontal lobe is particularly vulnerable to degeneration and the effects of aging,” says Dr. Kosik. According to a 2014 University of Wisconsin study, older adults who routinely worked on puzzles and played board games had higher brain volume in the area responsible for cognitive functions, including memory, than those who didn’t play games. These weird brain exercises can help you get smarter.
Stay young with saa, taa, naa, and maa
Dharma Singh Khalsa, MD, president and medical director of the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation, has spent many years studying the meditative tradition called Kirtan Kriya and has found that daily 12-minute sessions of the practice can improve blood flow to the brain and possibly even increase levels of telomerase, an enzyme that slows cell aging. The practice is simple: While breathing deeply, chant the Sanskrit words saa, taa, naa, maa (which mean “my divine self”) while moving your thumb to touch your index, middle, ring, and pinkie fingers with each new sound. Like any meditation, it may help to lift anxiety and fatigue. Here are other compelling health benefits of meditation.
Protect your mind from your heart
Scientists surveyed volunteers on seven familiar heart-health factors and tested their cognitive performance at two points over eight years. The results found that the more heart-healthy habits people had, the less cognitive decline they exhibited. A stronger cardiovascular system means a stronger pipeline of nutrients to the brain, says lead author Hannah Gardener, ScD, an epidemiologist in the Department of Neurology at the University of Miami. The seven heart-health ideals to strive for may be familiar (if they seem overwhelming, Gardener points out that “each one helps”): Not smoking; healthy body mass index (under 25); physically active (for at least 150 minutes a week); healthy total cholesterol (under 200 mg/dL); healthy blood pressure (under 120/80 mmHg); healthy blood sugar (under 100 mg/dL); and balanced diet (rich in fruits, veggies, and whole grains; low in sodium and sweets).
Lift the quality of your white matter
As the brain ages, its white matter often develops small lesions because of disrupted blood flow, leading to impaired cognitive function and mobility. Researchers at the University of British Columbia wanted to determine whether strength training might offer protection. Women ages 65 to 75 who already had lesions were divided into three groups: once-a-week strength trainers, twice-a-week strength trainers, and those who did other types of exercise. The results: Women who strength trained twice a week showed significantly less progression of white matter lesions than the other two groups did. Key moves you can try at home (using soup cans for weight): biceps curls, triceps extensions, calf raises, mini squats, mini lunges, and lunge walks; aim for 45 minutes a session. Here are some more brain facts that will blow your mind.
Make moves directly against Alzheimer’s
Exercise benefits the brain by improving vascular health—but newly published research suggests it also combats the chronic neuroinflammation observed in Alzheimer’s, depression, and other brain diseases. In such neurological conditions, the inflammation that normally clears tissue damage doesn’t shut off and starts to interfere with communication between neurons. Exercise has proven anti-inflammatory effects against diseases like diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, so that could be why exercise protects brain health as well, says assistant professor Jonathan Little, PhD, in a review article in Brain Research Bulletin. “Any type of moderate-intensity exercise, such as walking, cycling, and swimming, can have anti-inflammatory effects,” says Little. Aim for about 30 minutes a day.
Get your blood pumping
Although any exercise is good, aerobic workouts may be the best for brain health. A study from Wake Forest School of Medicine showed that the brain volume was higher in elderly people who participated in aerobic exercise than in people who just stretched. The aerobic exercisers also saw their cognitive function improve over a six-month period. “Research shows that aerobic exercise increases blood flow in the hippocampus, the memory region of the brain,” says neuroscientist Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD, founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas. “This is also the area most affected by Alzheimer’s, so you are strengthening a vulnerable part of the brain.” Check out more ways exercise makes your brain better.
Think deep thoughts
The brain relies on connections between neurons to function well; in Alzheimer’s, these connections begin to die off. Doing all you can now to help strengthen your neural connections will help protect your brain as you age. So use any opportunity in your daily routine for critical thought and analysis. “The strongest mental habit is to pursue deeper level thinking,” Dr. Chapman says. “This can happen in your everyday life, for instance abstracting themes from shows you see or books you read. Deeper-level thinking is like push-ups and sit-ups for the brain.” Joining a book club or even discussing last week’s episode of Game of Thrones with your partner is an excellent place to start. Read more on why your brain needs you to read every single day.
Keep your mind working
Another way to keep those neurons strong is to encourage neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to rewire itself and form new connections. Studies have shown that cognitive stimulation actually helps improve brain plasticity. Any new tasks you embark on can help keep your brain active, motivated, and inspired. “The brain is quickly jaded on routine and goes to auto-pilot when it gets bored,” Dr. Chapman says. “Doing new things—and improving things you’re already doing—can help your brain gain ground.” Here are more things to do to keep your brain sharp and healthy later in life.
Get brain circuits singing
Samuel Borges Photography/Shutterstock
Listening to or playing music can activate the motor cortex (touching a piano key or guitar string), the auditory cortex (hearing the notes you make), and the emotional center, or limbic system (feeling moved by a beautiful passage). “Circuits and networks are stimulated by these activities, which help keep the brain healthy,” says Dr. Kosik. Older adults who had at least ten years of musical experience did better on cognitive tests, according to a 2011 Emory University study.
As Jon Lovitz would say, “Acting!”
Learning lines for a production or an acting class engages the hippocampus, the temporal cortex, and the frontal lobe, says Dr. Kosik. So follow the lead of one of Jon Lovitz’s Saturday Night Live characters, Master Thespian: In one study, those who went to acting classes twice a week for four weeks boosted their ability to remember words, numbers, and short stories. A follow-up study found they improved word fluency by 12 percent and word recall by 19 percent. Check out these 15 behaviors that can literally rewire your brain.
Draw out your neural connections
When you draw, paint, or sculpt, you have to make spatial calculations and focus attention on details, Dr. Kosik says. Engaging in these activities (even doodling has health benefits!) helps protect octogenarians from mild cognitive impairment, according to a 2015 Mayo Clinic study. Also, 60- and 70-year-old art-class participants boosted scores on psychological resilience tests; MRI images showed their synapses had formed new connections. Here are more science-backed reasons adults should use coloring books.
MIND your eating habits
Research from Rush University found that combining the Mediterranean diet and the heart-healthy DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet is good for your brain. Adhering to the MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay), as it’s called, was found to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s up to 50 percent. “The food you eat provides the fuel for your brain, and the MIND diet produces the best kind of fuel,” Dr. Chapman says. “It includes such things as whole grains, leafy green vegetables, nuts, fish, berries, olive oil, beans, as well as limited amounts of cheese, wine, and dark chocolate.” Here are more of the best foods to eat to boost your brain health.
Skip the fat
There has been debate over the role of dietary fat in Alzheimer’s. According to Dr. Chapman, “Fried foods and foods high in saturated fat should be avoided.” We already know these foods aren’t good for your health in general, so that’s another good reason to give them a pass. A high-fat diet can also cause weight gain, which is a risk factor for diabetes—and diabetes, in turn, is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s. Although scientists aren’t sure exactly how diabetes and Alzheimer’s are linked, the Alzheimer’s Association suggests diabetes damages blood vessels in the brain, alters brain chemistry, and contributes to inflammation that harms brain cells. These are the foods that are secretly hurting your brain.
Take a probiotic
Scientists are just beginning to understand how the collection of good bacteria in your GI tract, known as the gut microbiome, influences your brain. “Feedback signals from the gut tell the brain about gastric and intestinal motility, gut hormone secretion, and gut inflammation,” says Linda Rinaman, PhD, a psychology professor at Florida State University who’s studied the gut-brain connection. Much of the research on the “gut-brain axis” in relation to the development of Alzheimer’s has been observed in rodents. But new studies in humans are also revealing a connection between the type of bacteria in the gut and the likelihood of Alzheimer’s. Although probiotics, which aim to balance your gut bacteria, haven’t yet been proven to protect brain health, it’s may be worth giving them a try—or eating probiotic foods like yogurt or sauerkraut—just in case.
Get your zzz’s on
You know what a bad night’s sleep can do to your focus the next day. Over the years, regular sleep deprivation can raise your risk of dementia, suggests research. “During sleep, your brain literally cleans out some of the toxicity that has built up from stress or agitation,” Dr. Chapman says. “Without good sleep, we see increased anxiety and stress. Sleep is restorative, helping you be more mentally energetic and productive. Even a quick nap helps.” Just keep daytime snoozing to about an hour, as longer than an hour and a half may be detrimental to your noggin, according to some studies. Here’s another scary thing that happens to your brain when you don’t get enough sleep.
Accentuate the positive
Doctors have long known there’s a connection between depression and Alzheimer’s; now, research is suggesting that depression is actually a risk factor for the disease. In addition, stress and stress hormones in the brain also been linked with dementia. On the other hand, research has found that a positive attitude about aging is actually associated with a lesser chance of developing dementia, even in the presence of other risk factors. If you’re depressed, it’s best to get help now. “Positivity always helps, but it’s just as important to embrace mistakes to learn from them and not be stuck,” Dr. Chapman says. Make sure you’re aware of the 9 medical reasons your short-term memory is getting worse.
Make new friends, and keep old ones
Brain researchers have found that socializing and maintaining friendships can protect against cognitive decline. “One of the most powerful things for brain health is relating to others—a shared sense of community is one of the top three factors associated with brain health as we age,” Dr. Chapman says. “Socialization also requires some of the most complex cognition because it requires us to constantly negotiate an understanding with those around us. For the brain, it’s like constantly solving a puzzle.” It’s not the number of friends you have, she says, but rather the quality and depth of your connections. Check out the kind of neighborhoods that could prevent your brain from aging.
Trying to focus on several things at once puts a strain on the brain and studies have shown it negatively impacts memory, especially as we age. “Multitasking is as toxic to the brain as cigarette smoking is to the lungs, but the effects become apparent much more quickly,” Dr. Chapman says. “Multitasking, which is really the brain constantly switching between tasks, decreases memory function and reduces hippocampal size. It fatigues the system and breaks down your immune system.” All of these things combined make avoiding multitasking the number one thing people should do to maintain and enhance their brain health, she says. Here are 8 reasons why you might be suffering brain fog.
Protect your brain from dementia and stay sharp for life with the 75-plus tips in Outsmarting Alzheimer’s by Kenneth S. Kosik, MD. Learn more and buy the book here.