Just like the rest of your body, how you sleep, what you eat, and how you move every day impacts the health of your brain. And taking good care of it now may be crucial for maintaining a healthier brain later. Think of your brain health like a retirement fund: The more you put into it now, the more likely you’ll have better outcomes down the road.
What causes cognitive decline in the first place?
Age, genetics, and lifestyle all play a part in brain health. Specifically, as you age, your brain may go through some changes, including less effective communication between nerve cells (meaning, you may be slower to process information or perform everyday tasks) and reduced blood flow to the brain (which may impact your memory or problem-solving skills).
There are certain types of degenerative conditions, such as dementia, an umbrella term for a set of symptoms that can include loss of memory, language, and other cognitive functioning. “No one's ever been able to really figure out the cause of Alzheimer's,” the most common type of dementia, says Richard Johnson, M.D., a professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, who studies Alzheimer’s disease. It's thought to be a buildup of certain types of protein in the brain, which, depending on how severe the disease is, may impact a person’s ability to think, remember, and function on their own. Some research has suggested that hormone-replacement therapy may increase the risk of dementia, though experts say it should be taken with a grain of salt.
How to support brain health long term
Due to the many factors at play, there’s no way to know for sure if you’ll develop dementia — and genetics aren’t everything. Some newly approved drugs for Alzheimer’s, such as Leqembi, have been shown to slow cognitive decline in some patients in the early stages of the disease. But experts say external factors — such as diet, exercise, and other lifestyle habits — might still aid your brain health and cognition in the long run. Maintaining brain health requires looking at your life holistically, says Nichol Castro, PhD, an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo, who specializes in memory and dementia. “If you add up, for example, bad sleep, bad diet, not a lot of life-enriching activities, the brain is just not being fed,” she says. Here are a few ways you can keep your brain healthy now:
“Diet is really important to brain health … If you deprive it of important nutrients and resources, then it's not going to function as well as we would like it to,” says Castro. Certain brain-boosting foods may even slow cognitive decline later in life. One 2023 study found that consuming more flavanols — antioxidant compounds found in tea, apples, berries — may improve cognitive function in older people who previously had a lower-quality diet.
The Mediterranean diet and MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diets, which focus on mostly plant-based and brain-healthy foods such as leafy greens, berries, whole grains, and healthy fats, have also been associated with less amyloid plaque buildup in the brain (the protein that’s associated with developing Alzheimer’s) and reduced cognitive decline.
On the list of things your brain doesn’t love (in excess)? Sugar. Too much of certain sugars can cause memory and attention span issues, and may even cause parts of the brain to atrophy. Fructose, a kind of sugar, may also be linked to the risk of developing Alzheimer’s, says Dr. Johnson. “Fructose inhibits the energy in certain areas of the brain that make you lose your self control, so that you're more brave, so that you're more likely to go into a dangerous place to get food. It was all meant to help us survive … When we're doing this chronically, those areas of the brain can get into trouble and can start losing their brain cells,” says Johnson. Johnson suggests consuming less sugary foods and less simple carbohydrates such as rice and potatoes (note: the body ultimately breaks down carbs into sugar), and eating more foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as walnuts and salmon. Staying hydrated also helps your memory and reaction time.
Physical activity and exercise aren’t just good for your heart and muscles. Movement may also help strengthen your memory, thinking, and problem-solving skills, and may even reduce your risk of cognitive decline. Plus, staying active is a great tool to maintain healthy blood pressure, which, in turn, just might help prevent or delay age-related cognitive decline and dementia. In one 44-year-long study, the participants with dementia who had high cardiovascular fitness were able to delay it by at least 10 years compared to the other participants who also had dementia but were less cardiovascularly fit.
Challenging your mind
This is less about doing the Wordle every day, and more about challenging yourself to learn new skills. There’s conflicting research about whether or not learning new skills — like a new language or taking up crafting — will actually prevent or slow dementia. One thing it can do is deal with stress. Chronic stress in particular can contribute to high cortisol levels, which can impact your memory and executive functioning. Learning something new can help reduce stress, boost self-esteem, and as a result may ultimately help keep your brain healthy. Don’t worry, though: You don’t have to become an expert in your new skill — it’s all about the learning journey.
Socializing can mean doing a job that you enjoy or find interesting or maintaining a healthy social life. “The idea is that the more life-enriching experiences you have — whether that's education, engaging occupations, social activity, physical activity — [that] gives you some buffer to when the brain does start atrophy,” says Castro.
So if you were looking for a sign to join a book club, try that group workout class, or reconnect with old friends, this is it. Like other brain-boosting habits, being social may ultimately slow the progression of cognitive decline if you do experience it, says Castro. “Maybe they can stay at home longer because they can still take care of themselves with some support,” she says. “Maybe they don't even need to go into a nursing home until they're very severe in their disease course. Whereas [someone without life-enriching components] might need support in medical care much sooner in their disease course.”
There’s no way to know for sure who will and who won’t develop dementia down the road. Genetics don’t paint the whole picture: Lifestyle factors like what you eat and how you live your life may impact on your brain health. Your 80-year-old self thanks you for investing in her.
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