Aging is hard on every part of the body, though perhaps nowhere are its effects as noticeable and alarming as in the brain. After all, that’s the place where the very essence of a personality takes shape over the years, forming you into the person you are today. Because of this, as the brain begins to slow, so do you. And you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone eager to slow down.
Luckily, says Patricia Greenberg, a nutrition specialist and author, we are learning more every day about “the role of lifestyle choices as we age” in protecting in our brains. With this knowledge, of course, comes the ability to do something about it—provided you listen and act accordingly. So, without further ado, we’ve compiled 40 of the most effective—not to mention fun-filled—brain-boosting habits to take up after 40.
Take advantage of momentary relaxation.
“When you are in stress mode,” says Greenberg, “everything tightens up.” This can lead to reduced oxygen intake and the onset of the “inflammatory response,” both actions liable to “damage nerve cells.” So now that you’ve hit your fourth decade, Greenberg recommends, make sure to take some time out to just let it all go in order to “counter these ill effects.”
Catch up with your friends.
“In so many research studies done on the aging populations,” says Greenberg, “one factor that really stands out is how often a person socializes.” Whether it’s a weekly reading group, a crochet circle, or even team softball, interacting with others regularly outside of the office is crucial to keeping the body—and the brain—spry.
While meditation is an “amazing habit for…keeping brains strong for everyone,” says Laura Sage, founder and CEO of CH/LL, it is “especially [so] for those over 40.” By reducing stress levels, she says, meditation “protects the mind from aging,” while improving memory and as aiding digestion, allowing for better a night’s sleep.
Tackle a crossword.
It’s almost a cliché at this point—doing crossword puzzles to stave off mental ennui—but that’s for a very good reason: crossword puzzles are excellent at “challenging the brain,” says Greenberg, causing it to “think and respond quickly.” Like any other muscle, the brain needs exercise, and a difficult puzzle can do for your cognition what a few sets of dumbbell curls can do for your guns.
Do some strength training.
Strength training, says Dr. Ian Stern, a licensed chiropractor, nutritionist, and conditioning specialist, “increases heart rate,” in turn “pumping more oxygen to the brain which provides an environment of growth for more brain cells.” In addition to lowering rates of depression, this improves memory and learning, keeping that gray matter working to the best of its abilities.
Avoid electronics before bed.
During a deep sleep, says Greenberg, “your body rids itself of toxins” an activity “necessary for staving off cognitive decline.” So once you’ve hit the forty-mark, it’s important to begin putting yourself in a position to enjoy the deepest of sleeps: one in which “you remember having dreams” and “wake up refreshed.”
One order to do so, says, Greenberg, try “staying off the electronics for at least an hour before heading to sleep.” An hour or more without the screen’s glare will help prepare the brain for rest by signaling to it that darkness is indeed coming soon.
Yoga may not be the answer for all things, but it is for most. According to Katie Ziskind, a licensed experiential family therapist, yoga is a habit that “promotes cognitive ability, improves brain function, and keeps your mind sharp.” In addition, Ziskind says, it improves spatial awareness, increasing “balance, stability, and strength.”
It’s true: laughter is one of the best medicines. By releasing endorphins, the act of laughing can help reduce stress, boost your immune system, and improve your mood. So to maintain an agile intellect—free from stunting due to age and stress—let yourself laugh a bit each day. If you’re finding it difficult to do, it may be time to make some funnier friends.
We all yearn to be heard, but did you know taking the time to listen to others can actually have positive impacts on our own brain functioning? By performing “deep listening”—a state in which the listening party receives the speaker’s message with attention, nuance, and an absence of judgment—the brain is singularly focused on the task at hand. This helps get the mind calibrated by de-cluttering some of the four decades’ worth of info it’s holding, allowing it to zero in with laser-like precision on its next project.
Plan a trip.
In addition to the relaxing effects of actually taking a vacation, just the act of planning one can help boost the brain’s effectiveness. By having something to look forward to, the brain begins to take up a rosier view of events leading up to the future trip. In addition, dealing with the pre-planning logistics—in the worst case—can be an excellent form of mental exercise and puzzle solving.
A good book, by making you wrap your mind around it, is a superb form of mental exercise, as well as one that can leave you with a more fun and fact-filled brain. To max out these effects, however, it’s best to read a good-old fashion paperback, complete with pages, paper, and a lack of “notifications” meant to distract.
Given the fact that the brain is made up of about 73 percent water, it should be no surprise that in order to keep it functioning at max capacity, it’s crucial to get your fill of that clear, crisp liquid. Whether it’s the first thing you do when you awake, or the last before bed, make sure you get enough water to stay sharp—you’ve already seen what happens to plant species when they don’t get the water they need.
Sleep in a cool room.
In addition to refraining from electronics before bed, Greenberg says that another great way to help ensure you get a full night’s sleep is to keep your sleeping quarters “dark and cool.” By sticking to this regimen, she says, eventually your need for an alarm clock will go away: you’ll simply “wake up on your own after enough rest.”
By “challenging your mind with learning something new,” says Greenberg, the brain will “grow in a sense.” In just the same way that a child “would grow intellectually when learning something new,” Greenberg explains, “this will have the same effect on an adult at any age.” And while it’s never too late to start learning and expanding the mind, there’s no time like the present, either.
Make fish a diet staple.
Loaded with omega-3 fatty acids—well-known for their benefits to the heart and skin—fish are a phenomenal brain food, as well. By reducing stress, improving plasticity, and boosting blood flow to the brain, a diet high in the fatty acid—which can also be found in nuts—helps keep the intellect roaring as you enter your fifth decade.
A craft is an activity in which you make something, usually by hand, outside of any professional environment. It is sort of like a hobby in which the hobbyist needs to gain special skills and ends with a finished product. Thus, by taking up a new hobby, the brain is able to relax—your financial security isn’t on the line, after all—while still being challenged to learn a new skill. In addition, it requires focus for as long as the craft is in construction, performing almost the same function as a period of meditation. So to keep your brain in shape, take up a craft, whether it’s building miniatures, painting nail designs, or—for a wacky idea—collaging old takeout menus.
The brain works best when it only has to grapple with a limited amount of information—ever stood in front of a large selection of items, absolutely frozen with indecision? And while our own daily lives regularly filter out a large amount of useless information, it can be rewarding—as we age—to begin actively limiting distractions, as well. Whether it’s setting up your outfits the week before to eliminate decisions, eating the same meal every day for a certain period, or simply no longer following along on what used to be your favorite serial TV show, removing some of the mental riff-raff from your life can help reveal a new vitality you didn’t realize your brain still possessed.
Practice your handwriting.
While it may feel a bit like turning back the clock, writing out messages by hand can actually help the brain stay agile and with the times. By approaching the words’ meaning from a whole new perspective, as well as doing the cognitive work needed for spelling, coordinating the hand, and remembering a trail of thoughts, handwriting is a great, low-stress way to stretch your brain, all the while still getting done a task that needs to be accomplished.
As you age, the complexity of your life can become overwhelming, especially for the mind. To provide a bit of steering, it can be helpful to set reachable goals which can help you, at any time, remain grounded within a task. This way, the brain is provided with a regimen and is able to discriminate unimportant information on that basis, all the while looking forward to the achievement of its goal.
In addition to being a stress-free act, the heartwarming rewards you get from volunteering for a cause you care about are innumerable, and help reduce depression as well as boost motivation. In addition, it’s also a great way to socialize and, given the difficulty of the task, exercise the mind, as well.
Sit up straight.
Good posture benefits both your mental and physical health, while also serving as a coping mechanism in reaction to stressful situations. So, next time you’re waiting in line at the DMV, keep your head held high and straight: your brain—once the ordeal is over—will thank you.
When it comes to playing games to stretch the mind, none comes close to chess. With millions upon millions of possible moves and situations to consider at all times, the game forces you to maintain focus, as well. After all, there’s a reason computers are so unattainably good at it.
Get some sun.
Vitamin D, that crucial vitamin we get from soaking in the sun, plays a large role in maintaining brain function. In addition, a little extra sunlight can help ward off depression, keeping the brain focused on the positives and the task at hand. So with sunscreen handy—always maintaining vigilance about dangerous UV rays—make sure to bask every once in a while in the glorious rays coming from that huge fireball in the middle of the universe.
Practice your concentration.
The ability to focus is one of the brain’s most important tasks and one in which age is liable to show. So in order to keep this function robust, it’s important to exercise it—in recreation—every once in a while. Whether it’s trying to memorize license plates that go by, regularly reciting the order of the presidents backwards, or any other activity that requires a high level of focus and minimal to no distractions, make sure you test your own ability to focus, and often. It will pay dividends.
Try new things.
Grappling with a whole new set of instructions, considerations, and evaluations is a tough task for any brain to endure. And that’s exactly why it’s the perfect exercise for an aging mind. So try something new, whatever it is: it’ll only be an added bonus that you finally get to pursue that juggling dream you placed on the back-burner for so long.
Up your magnesium intake.
Magnesium, says Dr. Carolyn Dean, author of 365 Ways To Boost Your Brain Power, is “one of the key brain health minerals.” This is because specific brain receptors crucial to learning and memory, Dr. Dean says, “depend on magnesium for their regulation.” Luckily, lots of foods contain magnesium, and so it shouldn’t be difficult to get your fill should you adjust your diet accordingly. All it takes is a little mindfulness.
See the glass half-full.
Stress, especially as you age, can be a real brain-function killer. To help ease the effects, it’s important to stay optimistic, helping to lessen your stress-load both physically and mentally, as well as maintaining motivation.
A great way to boost memory function, as well as keep a sunny outlet, is to practice gratitude. This can be a list kept in a journal, or in your mind, of all the things you are thankful for. Soon enough, you’ll be surprised how long the list grows.
The brain—like other organs—goes slack when it feels its work is no longer required. To keep it engaged, then, it’s important to stay motivated, looking forward to upcoming tasks and assignments on the horizon.
Get smart about caffeine.
While perhaps when you were younger you were able to chug down cups of hot Joe at any hour without altering your brain’s functioning, as you get older it becomes more important to monitor the effects of the things you put in your body. This especially includes caffeine, which has been shown to have many—mostly positive, when taken in moderation—effects on the brain’s working. In addition, smarter consumption can have a serious impact on another crucial aspect of brain health: sleep.
Maybe you want to enjoy the benefits of a good crossword but aren’t really a word person. Okay—try sudoku. The number-based grid game is offered at a variety of skill levels, but no matter the difficulty, remains a great cognitive workout.
Perform acts of kindness.
Aside from the benefits to the person who the act of kindness is affecting, being kind can help improve your brain functioning drastically. By boosting mood, making a new social connection, and feeling better about your own identity, a random act of kindness can be the perfect way to start off a smarter-than-usual day.
Take care of your mouth.
Given the mouth’s proximity to the brain, it’s no surprise it can often serve as entryway for unwanted bacteria to enter the latter. To nip any problems in the bud, then, take good care of your oral health: it won’t just be your dentist, and wallet, thanking you this time.
Load up on antioxidants.
Antioxidants help protect cells from damage, and perhaps no cells are as important to health as those in the brain. So to keep your noggin protected, ingest antioxidants—which can be found in many normal foods—when you can.
Get up earlier.
In addition to putting you in the league of Benjamin Franklin, getting up early can help boost your brain functioning for the rest of the day. This starts with going to bed at the right time—and under the right conditions—but nailing the early morning exit from the confines of the bedroom will put you on a road to mental success for decades to come.
Add some aerobic exercise to your routine.
If lifting weights isn’t your game, have no fear. Aerobic exercises that “get your heart pumping” such as walking and swimming, says Greenberg, can have many of the same positive effects on the brain as lifting weights. In addition to reducing the risk of dementia, Greenberg says, it will increase blood flow to the brain, improving the functioning of its neurons.
One easy way to test your brain is undertake tasks with your opposite hand. While we wouldn’t recommend doing this during important tasks—driving, surgery, and wearing your wedding band are a few that come to mind—switching it up during the more mundane parts of the day will help keep your mind agile, while adding in a little spice to the daily grind.
Keep a to-do list.
As the brain ages, it’s crucial to offload some of its tasks in order it to make sure it can run at the same speed it always did. One great way to do this is to write down anything you need to remember, such a to-do list, grocery list, or even people’s names. While these pieces of paper do the remembering for you, you’ll be free to focus on the more important things in life.
Just as having too many things to remember is likely to slow down the mind’s ability to focus on the task at the hand, having too much “stuff” around can also slow down the brain’s functioning. To keep it running smoothly, then, consider tidying up a bit every day, not forcing yourself to look at a heap of rubbish impinging the view of the table before you.
Use all your senses.
While learning new things is great, it’s important to remember that the brain houses all of your senses—not just the one or two currently most in use. So in order to really work the brain out, keeping it limber, make sure to expose yourself to new sensations in all of your five sense receptors. Wading through a landfill certainly isn’t required, but it would do the job.