5 Surprising Ways to Boost Your Brain Health, According to a Neurologist
This amazing and complex organ is always working. Here's how to help it out.
For many people, winter means festive gatherings, cozy afternoons baking up treats, fun in the snow–and coming down with a variety of illnesses. Recently, alarming reports of RSV, influenza, and of course, the latest strains of COVID have people worried about a "tripledemic." But while you're popping immune-boosting supplements, getting vaxxed, and washing your hands to prevent illness, don't forget that some aspects of our health need year-round attention.
Take your brain, for example. Made up of "more than 100 billion nerves that communicate in trillions of connections called synapses," WebMD calls the brain "one of the largest and most complex organs in the human body." Responsible for every process that regulates our body, as well as emotion, motor skills, touch, hunger, and more, your brain is working 24 hours a day, seven days a week—and that's how much care and attention it needs from you, too. Read on for some surprising ways you can give your brain the TLC it needs.
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Make social connections
Socializing has surprising and complex connections to your brain health. Connecting with other people is good for your brain and other aspects of your wellness; conversely, not having a good listener in your life has been shown to increase your risk of dementia.
"Maintaining a strong network of family and friends is very important" for your brain health, Verna R. Porter, MD, neurologist and director of the Dementia, Alzheimer's Disease and Neurocognitive Disorders at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, CA tells Best Life.
If your social circle is lacking, Porter recommends options like "volunteer organizations, joining various clubs or social group, taking a group class (for example, at a gym or community college) or getting out into the community (going to the movies, the park, museums, and other public places)."
Both choosing your diet mindfully and deciding to follow the MIND diet are great ways to take care of your brain. "A growing body of research has implicated a strong link between metabolic disorders like diabetes and impaired nerve signaling in the brain," says Porter, who explains that the MIND diet consists of 15 dietary components, including green leafy vegetables, berries, beans, and whole grains. "Better eating habits may help by reducing inflammation in the brain, which in turn helps to protect the brain," she explains.
"The MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet aims to reduce dementia and the decline in brain health that often occurs as people get older," advises Healthline. "It combines aspects of two very popular diets, the Mediterranean diet and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet."
Get plenty of sleep
In addition to giving you dark under-eye circles and making you feel cranky, not getting enough sleep can also have negative effects on your brain. "People with Alzheimer's disease often suffer from insomnia and other sleep-related disturbances," Porter says, explaining that "studies emphasize the importance of uninterrupted sleep for flushing out brain toxins–including beta-amyloid," which Porter describes as a "pathological hallmark" of diseases that cause dementia.
"It is also important to adequately treat obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) since incompletely treated, or insufficiently treated, OSA may increase the risk for cerebrovascular and/or cardiovascular diseases as well as the risk of developing dementia," she notes.
Engage your mind
Activities like crossword puzzles, playing cards, and learning to dance can actually improve your brain health. "Research has shown that there are many ways you can hone your mental sharpness and help your brain stay healthy, no matter what age you are," says Healthline. "Doing certain brain exercises to help boost your memory, concentration, and focus can make daily tasks quicker and easier to do, and keep your brain sharp as you get older."
"Consider taking a class or volunteering to keep your brain fit while staying socially engaged," says Porter, who also suggests studying a foreign language, practicing a musical instrument, learning to paint or sew, or reading the newspaper or a good book.
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Stay physically active
When you exercise your body, you exercise your brain, too. "Exercise may slow existing cognitive deterioration by stabilizing older brain connections (synapses) and help make new connections possible," Porter says. "The ideal is to increase physical activity through a combination of aerobic exercise and strength training."
If you're picturing a gym membership, dumbbells, and infinite push-ups, don't despair. A 2022 study published in Alzheimer's & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer's Association showed that incorporating even 20 minutes of physical activity into your daily routine can decrease your risk of dementia.