If you were taught that you’re born with all the brain cells you’ll ever get and it’s all downhill from there, it’s time for a rethink. Mounting research suggests you can improve your brain no matter what your age, making it stronger now and protecting it for the long term.
In fact, while surveys have found that 60 percent of Americans consider Alzheimer’s disease a natural part of getting older, scientists say the opposite. “We’re finally able to use the terms ‘Alzheimer’s disease’ and ‘prevention’ in the same sentence,” says Richard Isaacson, MD, director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medicine. And the same may be true for other forms of cognitive decline.
The best time to start your brain-improvement plan: now. Alzheimer’s-related brain changes that can lead to cognitive impairment—and prevent the lightning-fast thinking you’re used to—start as early as your 30s or 40s. Yet whether you’re younger or older than that, making good choices in what you do, eat, and think can make a big difference in how your gray matter works later on. “There’s not an age that’s too early or too late to think about better brain health,” says Dr. Isaacson.
Your brain’s four favorite life preservers include some that probably look familiar: The activity, foods, and sleep your heart loves also keep your brain in shape. Add some quality thinking time to that list, and your ideal plan looks like this:
Getting your body into action helps clear your brain of a protein fragment called amyloid, which is believed to accumulate in and “gunk up” the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. “There’s no drug available that can lower amyloid,” says Dr. Isaacson. “The only thing we know that can do it is exercise.”
It’s good at the job: A large review of studies found that active people have a 35 percent lower risk of cognitive decline than sedentary ones, and research published in the journal Neurology showed that people who were more fit had stronger brain abilities 25 years later than less-fit types.
So get moving! Walk; dance around the kitchen; play with the dog; stand up when you check your social media feed. Every day, find ways like this to be active. Also aim for at least 20 to 30 minutes of purposeful activity most days of the week (that’s the stuff that gets your heart rate up a bit) plus two short sessions of resistance training—squats, lunges, and the like—per week. You don’t need weights or any other equipment.
Downgrading your pace throughout your workout today may help you get moving again tomorrow. Research published in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology found that people who ended their workouts at a slower pace than they started them thought their sessions were more pleasant than did those who raised the intensity as they went along (even though both groups did the same amount of work). More important, they didn’t dread their next get-moving session and even thought it would make them feel good.
One of the most solidly researched ways to lower your risk of dementia is to challenge your brain so it becomes more flexible. That doesn’t mean solving crossword puzzles; it means doing new things to continually work different parts of your brain in order to build connections between them. Why that’s important: Imagine two roadway systems, one of which dead-ends when it hits a roadblock while the other has all sorts of detours for drivers to fall back on.
When you’re scrambling to remember a name, for instance, and your mind hits a “roadblock” of nonfunctioning nerve cells, you’ll come up with nothing. But if there are available detours, your brain will try them until it finds the name you’re looking for.
Build those “detours” by thinking about things in new or deeper ways. Talking about a novel’s key characters with your book club and teaching yourself to cook something different count because they require reasoning and attention. Variety, feeling engaged, and being challenged all help build a healthier mind, says Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD, a distinguished professor and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas.
It’s hard to fire up your brain with new things when you’re just trying to get through the same daily rush-rush routine. Make it a priority to try out different activities.
And ironically, one of the best ways to think more deeply is to spend some time not thinking at all. “The more information we take in, the more shallowly we think,” says Chapman. Taking a moment to focus on your breathing or on a meditation can quiet some of the mental noise that’s getting in the way of deep thinking. Every so often, step away from what you’re doing (and put your phone aside as well!) so you can clear your head.
Cheat on sleep, and you rob your mind of its potential. Shut-eye is when your brain does its housekeeping—“it’s almost like there’s a janitor inside who cleans up some of the toxic by-products that may be a precursor to amyloid proteins,” Chapman says.
Reframe sleep as a priority and a must-do, not as a weakness. To help yourself snooze, pay attention to what experts call sleep hygiene—in other words, bias your bedroom toward your getting good sleep. And stay off digital screens for at least a half hour to an hour before bed; the blue light they emit keeps you from producing melatonin, a sleepiness hormone that rises in your body at night.
Give sleep the priority it deserves by making room for it in your schedule. To keep yourself from pushing it off for another 30 minutes, then for an hour, then until the few emails you have to answer are done, set an alarm to warn you that you have 30 to 60 minutes to check out of go-go-go mode before you need to get to bed, says sleep expert Rubin Naiman, PhD, of the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine.
Ideally, try to check off all next-day busy work before that alarm goes off. This prevents you from running around to lay out work clothes and gather important papers right before you lie down. Getting that flurry of activity out of the way earlier lets you wind down. (Still can’t doze off? Check out these 100 ways to sleep better every night.)
While there’s no single food that can prevent or cure cognitive impairment, an overall healthy eating pattern can help. Try the MIND diet, a plan put together by a team led by Martha Clare Morris, ScD, of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. It includes the foods known to enhance memory and brain health and limits the ones thought to hurt it.
She recommends eating more of these: antioxidant-rich berries, vegetables (especially leafy greens), fish (for its omega-3 fatty acids, which likely make it easier for the brain’s nerve cells to communicate with one another), and whole grains.
The foods to cut down on: those with saturated and trans fats, both of which are believed to damage your cardiovascular system and thus your brain health. That means less red meat, butter, margarine, pastries and other sweets, and fried or fast foods. In Morris’s research, she saw that older people who stuck to this style of eating over five years lowered their risk of Alzheimer’s by 35 to 53 percent. The longer people stayed on the diet, the more their odds improved.
Most people are pretty good at finding more ways to eat grains or tricks for fitting in their favorite fish, but leafy greens often aren’t on the menu. You can make them effortless to eat by using these strategies: