6 Ways to Improve Brain Health
By: Sandra Darling, DO, MPH • Posted on June 27, 2022
A healthy lifestyle can lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. Perfection is not necessary; even small healthy habits will make a difference. To improve brain health and maintain cognitive function with age, the brain needs stimulation and support. Here are 6 ways to stimulate and support your brain that are part of a healthy lifestyle.
1. Feed your brain
One of the most important ways to support the brain is through a variety of nutrients. Dietary approaches that provide optimal nutrition include the Whole Food Plant-based diet, Mediterranean diet, and MIND diet. These diets emphasize whole, unprocessed foods and have little to no animal foods. Examples of whole foods and their processed versions are an apple versus apple chips from the snack aisle and rolled oats versus a cereal made from oat flour.
Apple chips and breakfast cereals are examples of ultra-processed foods. These foods deliver a one-two punch to the brain from the high amounts of sweeteners, sodium, and unhealthy fats along with the lack of fiber and nutrients the brain needs to thrive. Sadly, ultra-processed foods make up the bulk of calories consumed in the U.S.1 We need to drastically cut back on these foods.
Processed meats like bacon and deli meat are especially harmful. In a study of almost one half million middle-aged adults, each additional 25 grams of processed meat intake per day was associated with a 52% increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.2 Twenty five grams is approximately one slice of bacon, one half of a sausage link, or one slice of deli ham. Instead of bacon and eggs for breakfast, have a bowl of oatmeal with nuts and berries or whole grain toast topped with avocado. The cumulative effect of every healthy food choice you make will result in positive changes in your brain and body, regardless of your age.
2. Keep moving
Physical activity supports the brain through different mechanisms including:
- lowering blood pressure
- improving vascular function
- delivering blood, oxygen, and nutrients to the brain
Studies demonstrate an inverse relationship between physical activity and dementia: the more physical activity, the lower the risk. Even some exercise is better than none. Participants who did low to moderate amounts of exercise had a 35% lower risk of cognitive decline in one meta-analyses.3 A good strategy for brain health is to move more and sit less. Sedentary behavior is linked to cognitive decline and dementia as well as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and premature death.
Exercise protects the brain from atrophy (volume loss), specifically in the areas associated with memory like the hippocampus and frontal lobes.4 To keep your brain sharp, aim for 150 minutes (2½ hours) of moderate physical activity per week like going for a brisk walk.
3. Engage in conversation
Communication stimulates and engages different parts of the brain. It also involves social interaction, an important aspect of brain health, especially for older adults. Social isolation after age 65 is one of the modifiable risk factors of dementia.5 Consider joining a conversation group or book club or take an acting class at your local community college.
4. Reduce screen time
Watching television, movies, and videos and scrolling on social media are sedentary, non-stimulating activities. They draw us in and keep us hooked; a few minutes can easily turn into an hour or more. In one study, more than 3.5 hours of television per day was associated with a dose-dependent decline in verbal memory (vocabulary) over 6 years.6 The more time spent watching TV, the more harm was done.
How many hours do you typically spend on non-stimulating activities like watching television? Dedicate some time each day to engage in activities that are both stimulating AND enjoyable. See my ideas below!
5. Try something new
Learning new things, especially activities that require some brain power, stimulates different parts of the brain and strengthens brain functions. The brain needs to be challenged. People that go to college or work at cognitively stimulating jobs are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Just as exercise strengthens the muscles and protects the bones as we age, learning new things protects the brain.
Here are some ideas:
- Take an adult education class at your local community college
- Learn a new skill like woodworking, photography, or knitting
- Take a cooking class
- Travel to a foreign country and learn some of the key words and phrases
- Take music lessons to learn a new instrument
If you enjoy games and puzzles, check out the brain games on websites such as AARP, BrainHQ, and Lumosity.
6. Maintain a sense of purpose
Studies have shown that people who have a sense of purpose in their lives typically live longer and often report greater fulfillment. Work provides a sense of purpose and provides structure and social interaction. Work-related tasks stimulate the brain through the use of different cognitive functions like thinking, reasoning, communicating, organizing, and problem solving.
Early retirement is often associated with accelerated cognitive decline because the brain is less stimulated. As they say, use it or lose it - so keep your brain active through work or other activities that serve your purpose like volunteering for an organization you are passionate about.
These guidelines can help to improve brain health and lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. The more you can stimulate and support your brain through a healthy lifestyle, the more your brain will benefit. Start with one positive change today - even small changes will add up. Remember, it is never too late to build a better brain!
For a cognitive assessment focused on the lifestyle-related risk factors of dementia, schedule a brain screening at the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine at (216) 448-4325 (option 1).
Be Strong, Be Healthy, Be in Charge!
Sandra Darling, DO, MPH
- Gupta S, Hawk T, Aggarwal A, Drewnowski A. Characterizing Ultra-Processed Foods by Energy Density, Nutrient Density, and Cost. Front Nutr. 2019;6:70. Published 2019 May 28. doi:10.3389/fnut.2019.00070
- Zhang H, Greenwood DC, Risch HA, Bunce D, Hardie LJ, Cade JE. Meat consumption and risk of incident dementia: cohort study of 493,888 UK Biobank participants. Am J Clin Nutr. 2021;114(1):175-184. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqab028
- Sofi F, Valecchi D, Bacci D, Abbate R, Gensini GF, Casini A, Macchi C. Physical activity and risk of cognitive decline: a meta-analysis of prospective studies. J Intern Med. 2011 Jan;269(1):107-17. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2796.2010.02281.x. Epub 2010 Sep 10. PMID: 20831630.
- Tan ZS, Spartano NL, Beiser AS, DeCarli C, Auerbach SH, Vasan RS, Seshadri S. Physical Activity, Brain Volume, and Dementia Risk: The Framingham Study. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2017 Jun 1;72(6):789-795. doi: 10.1093/gerona/glw130. PMID: 27422439; PMCID: PMC6075525.
- Livingston G, Huntley J, Sommerlad A, et al. Dementia prevention, intervention, and care: 2020 report of the Lancet Commission. Lancet. 2020;396(10248):413-446. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30367-6
- Fancourt D, Steptoe A. Television viewing and cognitive decline in older age: findings from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Sci Rep. 2019 Feb 28;9(1):2851.
Sandra Darling, DO, MPH
Dr. Sandra Darling is a physician in the Center for Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine and is board certified in Preventive Medicine and Public Health and Lifestyle Medicine. She is dedicated to helping her patients achieve better physical, mental, and emotional health through nutrition, physical activity, sleep, and relaxation practices. In her medical practice, she prescribes lifestyle medicine to prevent and treat chronic conditions including hypertension, diabetes, and obesity. She has a special interest in brain health and facilitates the Brain Health and Wellness SMA to improve memory and reduce the risk of dementia.
Dr. Darling graduated from Touro University California osteopathic medical school and completed residency at the Florida Department of Health. Prior to medical school, she worked in the field of architecture and design. She changed careers later in life after she had a profound experience treating her own longstanding health issues primarily by altering her diet. Dr. Darling is passionate about good food and guiding others in making healthful food choices to promote healing. She and the Executive Chef at the Center co-facilitate the Culinary Medicine for Chronic Disease SMA.
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