The Best Healthy Habits For Your Brain, Say Neuroscientists
Scientists used to believe that we mentally peak in our early 20s and then begin a gradual decline after middle age. The good news is — although your risk of cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases increases as you get older — you’re not powerless. Adopting certain healthy habits for your brain can have a huge impact, slowing down or reversing some of these effects, says Dr. Hayley Nelson, PhD, a neuroscientist and founder/CEO of The Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience.
According to Dr. Dung Trinh, MD, a neuroscientist and chief medical officer at Healthy Brain Clinic, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, chronic stress, and maintaining a consistently sedentary lifestyle can sabotage your brain health over time.
On the other hand, the following habits for your brain can help you stay mentally sharp with age.
1. Regular exercise
As far as healthy habits for your brain go, experts say keeping up with an exercise routine is crucial. Research backs this up, too: A 2020 review in The Lancet found that physical inactivity is one of the main modifiable risk factors for dementia and that regular workouts can protect against dementia as well as Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr. Nelson notes that one reason for this link is that physical activity can increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that plays a crucial role in learning and memory. According to Dr. Trinh, exercise also improves blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain and promotes the growth of new neurons.
“This increased blood flow and oxygen supply can improve brain function by providing the brain with the necessary nutrients for optimal performance,” he explains.
Plus, Dr. Trinh notes that regular exercise ramps up the production of antioxidants, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative stress — two factors known to be detrimental to brain health and implicated in various neurodegenerative diseases.
According to Dr. Jud Brewer, MD, a neuroscientist and Chief Medical Officer at Sharecare, exercise is also good for your brain because it can help to reduce anxiety, combat the negative effects of stress, and increase neuroplasticity — or the brain’s ability to change and adapt with new experiences.
Dr. Trinh recommends aiming for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise along with two strength training sessions per week.
2. Getting adequate sleep
At some point or another, you’ve likely felt the mental effects of a poor night’s sleep — from low energy to difficulty concentrating. But experts say when you consistently fail to get enough sleep, that can have even more worrisome effects on your brain.
“Quality sleep is important for memory consolidation, cognitive function, and overall brain health,” explains Dr. Trinh. “Sleep has been shown to improve memory performance, particularly for tasks that require complex cognitive processes, such as problem-solving, decision-making, and creativity.”
According to Dr. Trinh, the brain consolidates and organizes memories from the day’s events during sleep, which is crucial for learning and long-term memory formation.
Not only that, but the brain undergoes an important process during sleep called glymphatic clearance, which helps to clear waste products and toxins that accumulate in the brain during wakefulness.
“This process allows the brain to effectively remove harmful substances, including beta-amyloid plaques which are associated with Alzheimer’s disease,” explains Dr. Trinh. “Poor quality or inadequate sleep may disrupt this important brain detoxification process, leading to a buildup of toxic substances that can negatively affect brain health over time.”
Dr. Trinh advises getting seven to nine hours of Z’s per night — and moreover, maintaining a consistent schedule with the same bedtime and wake-up time for higher quality sleep.
3. Maintaining a balanced diet rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids
You may already know that what you eat can affect your heart, skin, and metabolic health. But did you know that it also impacts your brain?
As Dr. Trinh points out, emerging research shows there’s a strong connection between the gut and brain, known as the gut-brain axis.
“Consuming a diet that is rich in fiber, whole grains, and fermented foods, and avoiding excessive intake of added sugars and processed foods can promote a healthy gut microbiota — which in turn can support brain health,” he adds.
According to Dr. Nelson and Dr. Trinh, the ideal diet for brain health is rich in:
- Antioxidants: These natural substances are found in many vegetables and fruits, especially berries
- Omega-3 fatty acids: These healthy fats are found primarily in fatty fish such as salmon and herring, as well as nuts and seeds
- B vitamins and minerals: Dr. Trinh notes that B vitamins play a role in neurotransmitter synthesis and cognitive function, while minerals like magnesium, zinc, and iron are involved in neural signaling and brain metabolism. B vitamins can be found in eggs, beef and poultry, and legumes, while shellfish, beans, ancient grains, and dark leafy greens are all mineral-rich foods.
“These nutrients reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, which can lead to neurodegeneration,” explains Nelson. “Conversely, a diet high in saturated fats and refined sugars has been associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia.”
4. Using mindfulness to cope with stress
A 2016 review in Current Opinion in Psychiatry found that chronic stress and anxiety can cause structural damage and impaired functioning of the brain, increasing your risk of developing certain neuropsychiatric disorders — including dementia.
That’s why Dr. Brewer says one of the best habits for your brain involves adopting stress management and relaxation techniques in your everyday life. Specifically, he suggests incorporating a mindfulness practice, whether that involves meditation, yoga, or breathing exercises.
“One good example of an everyday mindfulness practice is the ‘five finger exercise,’” explains Dr. Brewer. “To do this, start by placing your index finger on the outside of your pinky on the opposite hand. Then, use your index finger to begin tracing your finger, inhaling as you trace up. When you get to the top, pause, and then trace downward, exhaling as you do. Repeat this for each finger, and then start over again once you’ve reached your thumb.”
According to Dr. Brewer, this exercise helps distract you from anxiety or stress-inducing thoughts and makes it easier for you to focus on your breath by pairing it with simple, repetitive physical actions.
5. Engaging in mentally stimulating activities
Don’t underestimate the brain-boosting benefits of doing an occasional puzzle, playing chess, or learning a new language or musical instrument. These types of mentally stimulating activities serve as excellent habits for your brain because they engage a number of cognitive processes like attention, concentration, and information processing, says Dr. Trinh.
“Engaging in activities that challenge the brain can build cognitive reserve,” he explains. “Cognitive reserve refers to the brain’s ability to cope with age-related changes or brain damage without showing significant cognitive decline. Mental stimulation can also enhance neuroplasticity by promoting the formation of new connections between brain cells and strengthening existing ones. This can lead to improved cognitive function, memory, and learning ability.”