Editor’s Note: Dana Santas, known as the “Mobility Maker,” is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and mind-body coach in professional sports, and is the author of the book “Practical Solutions for Back Pain Relief.”
Some forgetfulness – like occasionally forgetting to pay a bill or recall a word – can be expected at any age. But cognitive decline – such as consistently struggling to remember monthly bills or stay focused in conversations – is not a natural part of getting older, according to the National Institute on Aging.
The truth is, your mind, like your physical body, is always capable of change for better or for worse. And the degree and nature of that change has less to do with age and more to do with action.
It’s well known that if you work out consistently, you can enhance your body’s performance. For instance, with the right training program, you can improve how fast you run a mile or increase the amount of weight you can lift. However, if you do not exercise and spend hours sitting each day, it will lead to associated negative health implications such as higher risk of stroke, studies have shown.
What many people do not realize is that, just like your body, the performance of your mind improves with proper and consistent training. Likewise, when not given enough stimulus, your brain becomes less capable of reaching optimal levels and more susceptible to decline.
You have the power to train your mind for enhanced sharpness and help safeguard it from degeneration in the future. Read on for five science-proven strategies you can start using today to build a stronger brain that will serve you well into your golden years.
These strategies are based on the “five pillars for brain health,” as outlined in CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s book “Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age.”
Move your body
When it comes to training your brain, your body is an essential part of the formula.
And exercise is the single most important thing anyone can do to improve brain function and resiliency to disease, according to Gupta.
Why is exercise so important for your brain?
In his book, Gupta pointed to the control of blood sugar and reduction of inflammation: “Using sugar to fuel your muscles instead of sitting idle in your blood helps prevent dramatic glucose and insulin fluctuations … that increase the risk for dementia. Exercise also helps lower inflammation and that is critical in preventing dementia.”
Beyond that, physical exercise has many other science-backed, brain-health benefits, like releasing mood-boosting brain chemicals and decreasing stress hormone production. Exercise also stimulates the release of growth factors involved in the healthy function and production of all cells, including brain cells.
This doesn’t mean you have to become an ultra marathoner or power lifter to reap the benefits, though. Ideally, you want to meet the World Health Organization’s recommendation of 150 minutes per week, but just a few minutes of exercise per day will boost brain health as well as your overall wellness. In fact, a recent study found that just 11 minutes of exercise per day can increase your life span. To fit in your allotted minutes of exercise and stick with it, explore different ways to get in motion so you don’t get bored or give this body-weight workout a try:
If you’re new to exercising or just getting back to it, ease your way into it with a training program that works for you.
Stretch your mind
The adage “use it or lose it” applies to both your body and brain.
Keeping your brain sharp means keeping it actively engaged. In his book, Gupta points to a French study of nearly half a million people, showing that those who retired at age 65 had a 15% lower risk of developing dementia than those who retired five years earlier.
Research also reinforces that the quality of brain engagement matters for building brain resiliency over the long term. That means taking it a step further than the mere recall demands of a crossword puzzle and engaging in activities that require reasoning, problem-solving and acquiring new knowledge.
If you have always wanted to learn another language, this is a great impetus. Consider trying something new with an online cooking class, starting a new hobby or reading a nonfiction book that’s outside your scope of expertise. You might also want to try online brain games that involve speed training. Unlike puzzles that only help with working memory, speed-processing games have been shown to reduce your risk of developing dementia.
Rest your body and brain
Sleep is not just a time of rest but an essential restoration process that impacts all systems of the body. This is especially true for the brain, which relies on quality deep sleep nightly for memory consolidation.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 in 3 Americans don’t get the recommended seven or more hours of sleep per night. The good news is that getting the regular daily exercise recommended above for better brain health will help you sleep better.
Because deep breathing helps you tap your parasympathetic “rest-and-restore” aspect of your nervous system, you can leverage your breathing to help you sleep.
Another important aspect of resting your brain is to give it regular breaks from stress. This is vital for brain health as a high level of the stress hormone cortisol is linked to brain inflammation, cognitive decline and increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Thankfully, exercise has been shown to be an effective stress reliever. Other research-backed stress-relieving activities include meditation, deep breathing and mind-body practices like yoga and tai chi.
Fuel your brain
There is no denying that the food and beverages we consume can have positive or negative health implications. As such, consuming certain foods and limiting others can help promote brain health and prevent decline. The Mediterranean diet, for example, may limit your risk for dementia, a May study published in Neurology found. This way of eating limits processed foods and red meats in favor of fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and extra-virgin olive oil.
That said, due to challenges conducting nutrition studies, enough valid research does not yet exist showing a clear and direct correlation between a particular style of diet and better brain health. Consequently, in his book, Gupta does not point to any one diet plan as better than another but instead gives general nutrition advice based on current science, which he outlines using the acronym SHARP:
S: Slash sugar
Research abounds on the negative health implications of too much sugar, but controlling blood sugar is also an important component of brain health since diabetes shows a strong link to dementia risk. Gupta notes that “many well-designed studies have found that people with high blood sugar had a faster rate of cognitive decline than those with normal blood sugar.”
H: Hydrate smartly
Even moderate dehydration is associated with cognitive deficits, so it’s important to stay hydrated.
A: Add omega-3s from natural sources.
Fatty fish are abundant in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been linked to lower blood levels of beta-amyloid, the protein found to form damaging clumps in the brain of those with Alzheimer’s disease.
R: Reduce portions
Portion control is an important aspect of brain health as obesity is linked to a higher risk of dementia.
P: Plan meals ahead
Planning ahead enables us to keep brain health in mind when we set our menus, helping us make better choices about the foods we eat.
Connect with others
Over the years, numerous studies have shown that strong social relationships contribute to healthier and happier lives. But, when it comes to brain health, recent research has shown those relationships also enhance neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change, enhance and preserve its cognitive abilities.
Human beings are social animals, so it is not surprising that relationships play a role in brain health. It’s important to actively cultivate existing relationships through regular communication and foster new relationships by taking part in new activities. You can double your brain-boosting benefits by socializing in an exercise class or joining a book club or hobby group.