Reviewed by Carmelita Swiner, MD on November 04, 2021
Give Your Life a Soundtrack
Your brain gets a mental workout when you stream your favorite playlist. Not only can listening to music help you feel more alert, but it also can boost your memory and mood. One reason is that there’s a math to music and how one note relates to the other. Your brain has to work to make sense of this structure. This is especially true for music you’re hearing for the first time.
Make Time to Make Friends
Getting to know new people boosts your brain’s “executive function” as much as doing a crossword puzzle. This set of mental skills includes your short-term memory, power to tune out distractions, and ability to stay focused. How does a friendly 10-minute chat help? Listening to someone else’s point of view and trying to put yourself in their shoes pushes your brain to think in new ways.
Laugh It Off
Stress can make your brain release a hormone called cortisol, which makes it hard to think clearly. Over time, high levels of stress can cause trouble with your learning and memory. A fun way to protect your brain is to have a good laugh. It can lower cortisol levels and help keep your brain healthy.
Nature has a calming effect and can ease stress -- even if you’re just looking out a window. When you spend time outdoors, you give your brain a rest from the constant flow of data and stimulus it gets throughout the day. This lets it reboot its ability to focus, so you may feel more creative and better able to solve problems.
Ditch Your Routine
There’s nothing wrong with eating the same breakfast every day or driving the same route to work. Humans are creatures of habit. But it’s good for your brain to try to mix things up. Even once a week can help. A change in routine boosts your brain’s ability to learn new info and hold onto it. Try out a new recipe or explore a different part of your city.
Become a Student Again
When you learn a new skill or subject, your brain makes new pathways between its many cells. You might try your hand at creative writing or a new hobby that interests you, like quilting or playing the guitar. If it seems hard at first, don’t give up. The tougher it is for you to get the hang of it, the better for your brain.
Focus on One Thing at a Time
Just because you can text, watch TV, and check your social media feed at the same time doesn’t mean it’s good for you. When your brain is hit with several streams of info at once, it has to sift through it all. This makes it harder for you to focus, manage your memory, and switch from one thing to another. Go easy on your brain and give one thing your full attention at a time.
Whether you say a mantra or just focus on breathing, meditation can help with high blood pressure or high cholesterol. (Both can raise your chances of Alzheimer’s.) Studies show it also can boost your focus, memory, and ability to choose words, and it can make it easier to switch from one thought to another. The reasons for this aren’t clear, but one theory is that meditation gives your brain a break from concrete words and thoughts.
Break a Sweat
Working out is as good for your brain as it is for your body. Exercise keeps your reasoning and thinking skills sharp because it ramps up the blood flow to your brain, along with certain chemicals that help protect it. Try to get moving every other day for at least 30 minutes.
Give It a Rest
If you don’t get enough sleep, even a simple task can take more mental effort than it would otherwise. You’ll also find it much harder to focus, and you may notice gaps in your short-term memory. To stay fresh, aim for 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night.
Watch What You Eat
The more calories you take in, the higher your chances of memory loss may be. The reason isn’t clear-cut, but a greater BMI (body mass index) at middle age is linked to poor brain health later in life. Small changes, like switching from whole milk to skim, will help you cut down on calories. Your doctor or a dietitian can help you with a plan that’s right for you.
Feed Your Brain
Certain foods work hard to protect your brain. These include fruits, veggies, legumes, fish, and “good” fats like the ones in canola and olive oils. A daily cup of tea or coffee also can help your brain wake up. But watch the processed foods--which can wreak havoc on your blood sugar.
Many chemicals in cigarettes are toxic to your brain, so you might not be surprised to learn that smoking’s linked to mental decline and dementia. And the same goes for secondhand smoke. Talk to others in your family about quitting, too. You’ll all stay healthier if your house and car are smoke-free.
Take Care of Your Heart
If your heart’s in poor health, you’re more likely to have learning and memory problems. Being overweight and not getting enough exercise can make your blood vessels narrow. This limits the amount of blood that flows to your brain, and your arteries may start to harden. High blood pressure is the biggest sign that your brain’s health is at risk. If yours is high, talk with your doctor about how to control it.
Get Help for Your Mental Health
If you’re depressed, you may be more likely to have a mental decline. In addition to feelings of helplessness and losing interest in things you love, depression also can put you in a “brain fog.” Thinking, staying focused, and making decisions can be much harder. If you have some of these signs, talk to your doctor about what you can do to treat them.
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Harvard Health Publications: “Mental strain helps maintain a healthy brain,” “Back to school: Learning a new skill can slow cognitive aging,” “Overeating may reduce brain function.”
Stanford University: “Media multitaskers pay mental price, Stanford study shows.”
Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience: “Effect of Meditation on Cognitive Functions in Context of Aging and Neurodegenerative Disease.”
UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center: “How Nature Can Make You Kinder, Happier and More Creative.”
University of Michigan: “Friends with Cognitive Benefits: Mental Function Improves After Socializing.”
International Psychogeriatric Association: “Recent Advances -- Smoking and Cognitive Functioning: The Dilemma.”
Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Keep Your Brain Young with Music.”
Mayo Clinic: “Alzheimer’s disease: Can exercise prevent memory loss?” “How risky is secondhand smoke?” “Overeating May Double the Risk of Memory Loss.”
Alzheimer’s Association: “10 Ways to Love Your Brain.”
American Sleep Association: “Sleep Deprivation -- Symptoms, Causes, Dangers and Treatment.”
National Sleep Foundation: “How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?”
American Psychiatric Association: “7 Tips to Help with Cognitive