Your brain is truly the most amazing part of your body. It comes up with creative ways to express your thoughts and emotions, coordinates movements from chopping onions to running an obstacle course, stores your most precious childhood memories, and solves the Sunday crossword. But it's easy to take those powers for granted.
"Many people don't start thinking about their brain health until they notice some cognitive changes and memory loss in their 60s or 70s," says Elise Caccappolo, PhD, an associate professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York. "But there are many things you can do, starting as young as childhood, to keep your brain as healthy as possible throughout your lifetime. We know that intellectual pursuits, social interaction, and perhaps most importantly, physical activity are helpful in keeping one's brain sharp."
The most important strategy, she says, is to work with your doctor to stay on top of your cardiovascular health. You want to keep blood moving easily through your heart and blood vessels. "High blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, smoking, and diabetes all increase the risk for developing neurodegenerative diseases by impeding blood flow to the brain," she explains.
When artery walls get thick with plaque or "hardened," a condition called atherosclerosis, it's difficult to get enough blood to the brain and nurture its cells. This can also lead to ischemic stroke -- when a blood clot forms in an artery, cutting off the blood supply to a section of the brain. That can cause temporary or even permanent brain damage.
A healthy, active lifestyle will go a long way toward keeping your blood flowing and avoiding those problems. A Swedish study of more than 30,000 women found that those who ate a healthy diet, exercised regularly, didn't smoke, drank only moderately, and kept their body mass index (BMI) below 25 had a far lower risk of stroke than women who didn't meet any of those five goals.
Plenty of Quality Sleep
A key way to keep your brain working is shut it off for 7-9 hours a night. "Sleep is the most important thing you can do to reset the brain, allow it to heal, and to restore mental health," says Romie Mushtaq, MD, a neurologist and integrative medicine specialist.
New research shows that during sleep, the brain clears out toxins called beta-amyloids that can lead to Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.
Mushtaq suggests a few simple things before you go to bed.
Do a digital detox. Commit to the same bedtime each night, and turn off all electronics and screens at least 30-60 minutes before you hit the pillow.
Dump your worries. Jot down any lingering concerns and a quick to-do list for tomorrow to help settle your brain. "Our thoughts are always racing, provoking anxiety," she says. "But if you write it down with pencil and paper, it tells your brain it doesn't have to be concerned about those things while you sleep."
Spend a moment meditating. Not only will 5-10 minutes of mindful meditation calm your brain and make it easier to sleep, meditation has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, fatigue, and confusion. "Meditation can benefit people with insomnia by helping them fall asleep and stay asleep. It also helps with inflammation in the brain," she says. "Most people find not only do they sleep better, they can focus better and are not as anxious."
Move Your Body
Walking for 30 minutes a day, taking a dance class, or going for a swim helps keep you slim and fit, and it could improve your cognitive health, too. A large Canadian study that found the more physically active adults were, the higher they scored on tests of memory and problem-solving.
Exercise boosts blood flow to the brain. And studies have shown it can increase the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory, which naturally shrinks as you age.
New research from Italy suggests that working your leg muscles may be key to getting the maximum brain benefit from physical activity. The researchers found that when you use your legs in weight-bearing exercise, the brain receives signals that spur it to make healthy new cells.
A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, low in saturated fat, full of the nutrients found in leafy green vegetables, along with whole grains can help keep your brain healthy throughout your life. For many people, this means following the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fish, fruits and vegetables, nuts, olive oil, and avocados, while limiting red meat.
The MIND diet -- a hybrid of the Mediterranean diet and the heart-healthy DASH diet, with an extra emphasis on berries and leafy greens -- was created specifically to boost brain health. It's been shown to lower the odds of Alzheimer's disease.
One treat to consider adding to your diet: dark chocolate. New research has found that the flavanols in cocoa beans can help improve memory and cognitive function.
Mushtaq also recommends paying attention to how much caffeine you have. "Coffee in the right dose can help focus and prevent neurodegenerative disease," she says, but after two cups, the effects can become harmful and the stimulants may get in the way of falling asleep. She recommends one or two cups in the morning, then switching to drinks without caffeine by 2 p.m.
Instead of watching Netflix or scrolling Facebook, Caccappolo says, spend as much time as you can with friends. Why? "When you're socializing, the blood circulates to several different parts of your brain as you're listening and formulating responses," she explains.
And when you're connecting with friends, you’re less likely to get depressed. Depression can hamper how well your brain works. "If you're depressed or anxious, the brain becomes so occupied with what-ifs and worries that it's not able to give 100% to learning new things," she says.
Try New Things
Building new skills throughout your lifetime -- how to cook Indian food, how to play an instrument, even learning the rules of new card games or traveling to an unfamiliar city -- helps keep your brain healthy by constantly creating new connections between brain cells, Caccappolo says.
Challenging your brain essentially creates a backup system. "The more intellectual stimulation you have, the more various neural circuits are used. And the more circuits you have, the harder it is for the changes associated with neurodegenerative diseases to manifest," she says.
It's more helpful to master real-world skills than to play online "cognitive enhancement" games. "We've found that people improve on the specific tasks in those games," she says, "but that doesn't really correlate with real-world activities."