Every year, we get older. Every year, our brains get older. But does older have to equal decline? Many years ago, scientists were sure that when you turned 20 years old, your cognitive functions would plateau for life.¹
Now we know this isn’t the case at all. (Phew!)
In the last 15 years, researchers have discovered the concept of neuroplasticity, which is your brain’s ability to adapt and change as you learn. The best part? We now know that this ability to continue changing and learning extends well into adulthood.²
And that means we have the power to improve our minds at any age. Pretty impressive, right?
Let’s take a closer look at how and why we might want to work on keeping our brains young.
Why Focus on Your Brain Health — at Any Age
Even if you’re on the younger side, it’s truly never too early to begin taking an interest in your brain health.
Though most of the research focuses on middle-aged and older adults (as well as dementia prevention), young adults have a unique opportunity. They can make lifestyle changes and stick with them over the long term, which could drastically impact their life-long brain health.³
In his book, The Age-Proof Brain, Marc Milstein, PhD, explains that many people in their thirties and forties are concerned with their ability to focus, believe their memory is worse, and feel less productive than they used to be.⁴ They chalk it up to aging, thinking there’s nothing they can do.
But this defeatist idea is not what the research shows at all.
Key lifestyle changes can lead to noticeable and measurable improvements. Milstein says, “The take-home message is just because you’re getting older doesn’t mean your brain has to age at the same rate. Significant cognitive problems are not a normal consequence of aging.”
Before we dive into some tips that will improve your brain health, let’s define what we’re dealing with.
What is Brain Health?
The World Health Organization defines good brain health as “a state of optimal cognitive, sensory, social-emotional, and behavioral functioning.”⁵
So, in other words, it’s your brain functioning at peak performance. Who doesn’t want a reliable working memory and a sharp mental capacity?
How to Improve Your Brain Health
Your brain health is dependent on a wide variety of factors. What are some tips to optimize your brain health? And what does the research say about methods you can try today? Let’s take a closer look.
Eat Brain-Boosting Foods
It will come as no surprise that nutrition is one of the first areas to consider when trying to boost your brain power. The foods we eat can be vital ammunition in the war against cognitive decline.
Research has shown eating broccoli, blueberries, fish with Omega-3 oils, turmeric, and even dark chocolate can boost cognitive abilities.⁶
Many doctors recommend eating a Mediterranean-style diet high in lean protein, vegetables, legumes, extra virgin olive oil, and complex carbs.⁷
Do Aerobic Exercise
Just like healthy eating, exercise may be one of the best things you can do for your brain. Aerobic exercise is especially beneficial to boost your brain power.
Research shows aerobic exercise improves cognitive functioning, especially executive function tasks such as planning, multitasking, and problem-solving.⁸
A study at the University of Wisconsin looked at cognitively normal middle-aged adults and measured their physical activities for a week.⁹ Scientists analyzed the data and it showed moderate physical activities (such as a walk) and vigorous activities (such as a run) both improved neurometabolic function.
Vigorous activity also showed a change in the hippocampus region of the brain, which is important for learning and memory. Aerobic exercise between 43.3 and 68.1 minutes a day corresponded with the biggest increase in brain glucose metabolism. This is important because a decrease in brain metabolism is predictive of cognitive decline.
Another study followed two groups of healthy adults over 12 weeks as they did high-intensity interval training (HIIT) several times a week.¹⁰ This group comprised young adults, 18-30 years old, and older adults, aged 65-80. At the end of the 12 weeks, scientists found that resting glucose levels had increased for both age groups.
Do Brain Exercises to Improve Memory
You’ve probably heard the buzz about brain exercises for memory. But it’s actually a lot simpler than you may think. You don’t need an app or computer game. All you need is anything that engages your brain and provides novelty. Word puzzles and math problems are some of the best exercises for this.¹¹
If you make it a habit to do the New York Times Wordle daily, that’s a good start. Sudoku is another excellent choice. Your brain craves novelty, so switch things up. This can mean doing a home renovation project you’ve never tackled before, learning a complex board game with friends, or simply taking a different route home.
Be a Life-Long Learner
If you want to boost your brain, think about ways to step outside your comfort zone and learn a new skill. Is there something you’ve always wanted to try? Learning new things can be fun and helps to create new pathways in your brain.
Have you always wanted to learn to play an instrument? How about knitting or crocheting? You can try a cooking, martial arts, or dance class. Dancing uses your body and brain simultaneously so that you can practice mental and physical dexterity. The music, endorphins, and camaraderie are sure to boost your mood as well.
Or start learning a second language! Language learning has been shown to create structural changes in adult brains. Just a short time after beginning to learn a new language, research participants of all ages showed an increase in the brain’s gray matter, density, and white matter.¹²
Second language learning has so many social benefits already; now you can add neuroplasticity and a healthy brain to the list of reasons to give it a try!
Tend to Your Friendships and Social Connections
Studies have shown people with strong social ties and thriving friendships have a more developed amygdala,¹³ so they’re better equipped to regulate their emotions.
It’s most healthy to have a social support group in person — online friends are less likely to provide the same level of mental health benefits. Being around people keeps you motivated to make healthier lifestyle choices all around.
Keep Your Brain Young and Healthy
Now you’re armed with tips to strengthen your brain. Put just a few of these to work in your life, and you’ll be able to care for your brain as you age, putting you in the best position to be as sharp and healthy as possible in the years to come.
- Milstein, M. (2022). The Age-Proof Brain. BenBella Books.
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