Brain & Nervous System Health Center

How to Keep Your Brain Fit for Life

Just like your muscles need exercise, your brain needs mental workouts to stay in shape.

But your gray matter gets so good at doing your daily routine that it barely has to work at it. So, you have to go above and beyond your everyday activities to stimulate it. That can help you prevent or reverse memory loss as you age, research suggests.

Whether you're young and want to stay sharp for as long as possible, or you're getting older and are concerned about conditions like dementia, you can do a few things to protect your brain and boost your mental abilities.

Use It or Lose It

Keep your mind active. Stay involved in pastimes that make you think on several levels. It’s not enough to mindlessly flip through TV channels, surf the web, or scroll through Facebook.

"We spend too much time on low-level activities that drain the brain," says Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD, director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas. "Instead, take information in, combine it with the rich knowledge already stored in your brain, and transform it into new ideas."

Do this on a regular basis to strengthen the networks in your brain. This can help keep you quick-witted for years to come.

Read or Watch, Then Discuss

Reading a book or even watching TV or movies can be good for your brain -- if you learn something new and think it over afterward. Even better, talk about it with other people, says Norman S. Werdiger, MD, associate clinical professor of neurology at Yale. This helps you make sense of the information on a deeper level.

Talking with other people has its own brain-boosting benefits. You could join a book club or have friends over to watch a movie, then discuss it

"When you have conversations with other people, you're getting feedback from them on how you're doing mentally," Werdiger says, "and you're forced to consider what you're saying and how you're behaving."

This is especially important for older people who spend a lot of time alone. Try to see friends or family regularly to avoid loneliness and depression, which have been linked to lower brain function.

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Give Your Brain a Change

Choose a new route to and from the grocery store, or a new recipe for dinner. Simple changes like this can keep you engaged. "Operating on autopilot can be helpful at times, but you shouldn't depend on it for all of your daily activities," Werdiger says.

"Our brain is wired to be inspired," Chapman says. "It gets jaded on the status quo." That's why it helps to mix up your routine now and then with new and different activities.

Werdiger compares this to an athlete training for a specific sport. "The more you do something, the better you get," he says. "So once you reach a certain level, you can't keep doing the same thing. You have to challenge yourself to get to the next level."

Go for What You Love

Find a new hobby that excites and challenges you.

Pick up an instrument, try a new language, or play chess on the computer, for examples.

"There's nothing magic about computer games or crosswords," Werdiger says. "What really matters is that you do things that make you formulate strategies and react to changing circumstances. Don't just be a passive bystander."

Be Aware of Your Meds

You might be taking prescription medicines if you have a health condition like high blood pressure, depression, or allergies. Some drugs can affect your ability to think clearly.

Let your doctor know if you feel more groggy or forgetful after starting a new prescription. He might change your dose or suggest you try a different medication.

Get Your Blood Flowing

Exercise is important, too. When you boost your heart rate, you also send your blood flowing throughout your body. Blood carries nutrients and oxygen to your brain. That helps to keep its tissues healthy and its many circuits working properly.

Some of Chapman's research found that people who rode a stationary bike or walked on a treadmill for 60 minutes, three times a week, had improved blood flow to the area of the brain that deals with memory. After 12 weeks, they did better on memory tests.

Other types of exercise can be helpful as well. Yoga three times a week can boost brain function in older adults.

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Feed Your Mind

Your brain needs vitamins and minerals to work at top speed, so eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Smart food choices can also help you avoid or reverse conditions like obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes -- all of which seem to play a role in memory loss and mental decline.

Vitamin D is one nutrient that seems especially important for brain health. One study found a connection between low levels of D and forgetfulness and trouble focusing. If your doctor says you're not getting enough of the vitamin from food or sunlight, she may recommend you take supplements, too.

Catch Zzz's

Sleep. Many of us don't get enough, Werdiger says. "Without the right amount of sleep, the brain will not function well, and the effects can really add up over time."

Most adults need between 6 and 8 hours a night. Your brain will get to rest, repair itself, and store away new information.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Neil Lava, MD on October 22, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

Harvard Health Publications: "6 simple steps to keep your mind sharp at any age."

Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD, director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Norman S Werdiger, MD, associate clinical professor of neurology at Yale University School of Medicine.

News release, Alzheimer's Association.

Pillai, J. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, November 2011.

Antoniou, M. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, December 2014.

Harvard Health Blog: "Can computer games keep your brain fit?"

Chapman, S. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, November 2013.

Gothe, N. Journals of Gerontology, July 2014.

Nguyen, J. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 2014.

Tzourio, C. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, March 2007.

News release, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

News release, Rutgers University.

American Psychological Association: "Strengthen your brain by resting it."

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