The brain plays such a critical role in everything that we do. It allows us to communicate, move and make decisions along with controlling our thoughts and feelings. But, just like any part of the body, the brain needs love and attention too, especially as people get older.
Caring for and actively engaging the brain through healthy lifestyle habits can help boost memory and concentration as well as reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. So, no matter how old you are, it’s never too early or late to incorporate certain lifestyle habits into your daily life to maintain a healthy brain.
According to neurologists, here are the top things they do every day to keep their brains and minds healthy and sharp.
Regularly move your body
Getting in physical activity is one of the biggest things that Radhika Jagannathan, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of neurology in the Division of Aging and Dementia at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, does to engage her body, muscles and brain.
“I try to exercise five days a week if possible and it’s sort of a mix of cardiovascular activity and weight training,” Jagannathan told Seasons. “I also work with a trainer and have been doing a lot of running.”
Whether you decide to walk, jog, ride a bike, lift weights or engage in other activities like tennis or basketball, any type of physical movement can help reduce anxiety and depression and improve memory and cognitive health, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Jagannathan added that exercise can also help lower blood pressure and decrease heart disease risk which are some factors that may contribute to the risk of cognitive decline.
“I would recommend that people try and engage in maybe 30 minutes of aerobic activities three times a week minimum,” she said. “You can do more than that, but I think that’s a good place to start, especially for people who aren’t in the habit of getting in physical activity.”
David Merrill, MD, PhD, a psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s Pacific Brain Health Center at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, told Seasons that he exercises three times a week for about an hour at a time by engaging in a combination of body weight and free weight movements, like squats, lunges and push-ups.
“Physical movement is arguably the most important element to achieving successful aging, and that includes healthy brain aging,” he said. “I really encourage patients to try individual or small group exercise classes or whatever type of movement they think they might enjoy.”
He noted if patients have major health or balance issues, they should work with a licensed physical therapist to get started.
Fuel up on healthy brain food
Eating a well-balanced diet and avoiding foods that are highly processed is another thing that both Jagannathan and Merrill do to support their overall brain health. This can include eating foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, tuna or mackerel, whole grains such as quinoa or brown rice, and leafy green vegetables like spinach, kale or broccoli.
“Diet is a challenge, we’re surrounded by sugar, salt and not-so-good fats. But, I try to minimize those additives, adhering to a whole-food largely plant-based diet,” Merrill said. “I’ve found that it’s important to eat in a way that is enjoyable and sustainable with a mindfulness about health.”
Jagannathan noted while there are certain foods and meal plans like the Mediterranean diet that are highly recommended to reduce the risk of cognitive decline and odds of dementia risk, more research is needed to support whether or not one particular diet is better than another.
“The Mediterranean diet is good for cardiovascular health and so that is also going to be good for your brain health,” she said. “But, I don’t think the data is that strong for any particular diet.”
Exercise your mind
Beyond breaking a sweat and eating healthy, neurologists say they also challenge and exercise their minds by participating in brain activities, such as working on puzzles and crosswords or playing board games and computer-based brain games.
“Things that I enjoy are playing board games and puzzles. I also find that playing board games and engaging in other social activities is not something that I do every day, but I think it’s sort of important for staying active and maintaining brain health,” Jagannathan said.
People can also consider learning a new skill, language or instrument, taking a new route, playing other games that challenge the brain like chess, poker or bridge, or even meditating to exercise their mind.
“There’s so much to learn, and we now know that learning new things is key in maintaining a healthy brain with aging,” Merrill said. “New learning causes the formation and strengthening of connections between brain cells, which also helps keep them alive and healthy.”
Merrill and Jagannathan noted that it’s not so important what the particular topic is that you’re learning about, rather it’s about finding an activity that you find worthwhile and fun.
“If you like reading and find it enjoyable to read for an hour every day, I think that’s wonderful, but not everyone is going to find that pleasurable,” Jagannathan said. “I really don’t think making some of these activities a chore is helpful to anybody.”
Buddy up and interact with others
The last thing both experts say they do to maintain a sharp mind is to socially engage and interact with others whether that be during their workout or when they are playing a board game.
“It’s much more fun to work out with friends, one of whom happens to be my wife and partner. For over two years now, we have worked out religiously together with our trainer,” Merrill said. “Connecting with others during exercise really reinforces the regularity of the effort.”
Beyond buddying up with friends and family during physical exercise, experts say there are other ways to pursue social activities that are meaningful to you and can support brain health. This can include volunteering at a local shelter or food bank, joining a book club or local choir, or even chatting with loved ones in-person or over the phone.
How you can include these habits in your daily life
One major way to incorporate these habits into your daily schedule is to plan and find a routine that works best for you, Jagannathan said. For example, if you are retired and no longer have the day-to-day busyness of caregiving, you may establish a daily routine for yourself that includes 30 minutes of physical exercise, an hour of learning a new language that engages and challenges your brain and 30 minutes of talking with a relative or friend.
She added it’s also important to recognize that everyone’s schedules and abilities are different. What may work for one person may not work for someone else. That is why she said it’s all about finding a physical activity or diet/meal plan that works best for you as well as something that you will enjoy.
“I think it’s important for people, especially caregivers and older adults who are experiencing cognitive changes themselves to try and maintain a routine and incorporate activities they enjoy into that routine,” she said. “Carve out some time for yourself to be able to engage with something that you find valuable and kind of get the benefits from those things.”