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8 Surprising Ways to Keep Your Brain Sharp

Jul 10 2021
12 min read
Side view of young man sitting outside with his back up against a tree as he mediates with his eyes closed.

Where did I park? What’s the name of that movie we just saw? The older we get, the more often we find ourselves asking these types of questions.

The older we get, the more often we find ourselves asking these types of irksome, head-scratching questions. Some age-related memory loss is normal (although that doesn’t make forgetting a word mid-conversation any less frustrating). Physical changes to the brain occur with age: Our brains lose volume as we get older, for example, and our neurons communicate with each other more slowly. The arteries in brains also narrow with age and fewer brain capillaries grow, so we get less nourishing blood to our noggins. We will all experience modest, gradual declines in functions like memory, learning and speed of thought as a result of these and other changes as the years pass.

Although it’s not known exactly why some people feel the effects of an aging brain more than others, or why some go on to develop neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, a combination of several factors, including genetics, environmental exposures, life experiences, lifestyle and overall health, are likely at play. Some of us also appear to have a greater “cognitive reserve,” the brain’s ability to continue functioning well despite age-related changes and damage.

The fact that your general wellness plays a role is actually good news, because it means that by taking charge of your health, you have some power to maintain a healthy brain. By now you’re probably aware that there are ways to help keep your brain healthy and your memory strong, like staying active, eating omega-3-rich foods and getting enough rest. These well-known approaches may ward off some of the effects of aging on the brain. But research continues to uncover surprising ways to stay sharp and lower your risk of neurodegenerative diseases, including taking care of your heart, meditating and even laughing more. By adopting these and other healthy habits, you’ll live a lifestyle that promotes a sharper brain:

Take Care of Your Ticker

Your heart pumps blood to your brain, so it makes sense that cardiovascular health would play a role in your mental fitness—and research backs this up. For example, people with heart disease are more likely than those without it to develop a form of cognitive impairment that affects language, thinking and judgment and can lead to Alzheimer’s disease. And a Harvard Medical School study found an association between eating saturated fat, which raises LDL (bad) cholesterol levels in the arteries, and poor performance on tests of thinking and memory.

Your Stay-Sharp Plan: A heart-healthy diet can do double-duty, helping protect you from memory loss by lowering your risk of high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity, all of which can affect memory. (Scientists believe that eight percent of Alzheimer’s disease cases may be caused by high blood pressure.) Focus on a Mediterranean diet: Eliminate trans fats and minimize saturated fat, highly refined grains and added sugars; replace them with vegetables, fruits, whole grains, healthy oils and lean protein.

Laugh More Often

Laughter really is good medicine! Humor is being used as a complementary therapy for people who are already dealing with dementia, but it could even help ward off cognitive problems before they start. When we’re under stress, the hormone cortisol can cause damage to nerves in the brain, which may affect learning and memory as we age. But researchers think humor may help the brain heal. In one study, watching a comedy lowered cortisol levels and improved scores on tests of recall, learning and sight. Cortisol isn’t the only factor: The bump in feel-good brain chemicals we get when we laugh also increases brain wave activity that improves memory.

Your Stay-Sharp Plan: Rediscover the value of spending your time doing something you simply find humorous. Watch funny movies and TV shows more often, download podcasts of stand-up comedy to listen to during your commute, and clip and display cartoons in your office that make you chuckle. And don’t skip out on spending time with friends who make you laugh out loud—staying social helps keep us sharp (and happy) as the years pass.

Watch Your Drinking

It’s awfully tempting to run with headlines stating that a drink or two a day is good for our hearts and minds. But drinking too much can contribute to health concerns, and memory problems are among them. Middle-aged men who drink excessively show faster cognitive decline, and alcohol abuse in mid-life doubles the risk of severe memory impairment in older age in both men and women. Drinking too much may harm the blood vessels, which could affect cognition. But other factors, like the toxic and inflammatory effects of alcohol in the body and drinking-related vitamin deficiencies, may also play a role.

Your Stay-Sharp Plan: If there is a protective role of alcohol for health, there’s likely a sweet spot—light to moderate drinking appears to be enough to get the benefits, while more can cause trouble. Women who partake should stick with one drink a day; men can have two. And if you don’t drink yet, there isn’t enough evidence to convince us that you should start.

Quit Smoking

One of the many benefits of kicking this habit could be improving your brain health. Smoking promotes a build-up of plaque in arteries that can lead to stroke. And cigarette smoking is the most common culprit in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a condition that makes breathing difficult. COPD reduces oxygen in the blood and increases inflammation, and people with the condition are more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment, especially if they’ve had it for more than five years.

Your Stay-Sharp Plan: We know it’s not easy, but for your brain health and so many other reasons, we encourage you to make a commitment to quitting smoking. Start by making an appointment to talk about quitting with your doctor; he or she can discuss options that are proven to work, like nicotine replacement therapy, and strategies than can aid you on your journey toward being smoke-free, including conquering your smoking triggers.

Don't Skip Strength Training

You’re probably well aware that exercise can help you stay sharp; working out improves cognition in adults of all ages in several ways: by growing new brain cells in the hippocampus (our memory center), by increasing the number of capillaries in the brain and connections between regions, and by bumping up the production of neurochemicals that help us learn faster and retain information, for example. In fact, cardio workouts—walking, running, biking and other forms of aerobic exercise—are the most powerful means of decreasing your risk of dementia. But don’t stop there: Studies show that strength training can help you build a stronger brain, too; working our muscles seems to be especially effective for memory and executive function, our brain’s control center. The brain benefits of strength training come, in part, from increases in brain-derived neurotrophic factors. These “vitamins for the brain” encourage cell growth, survival and differentiation.

Your Stay-Sharp Plan: Keep up your cardio, and aim to also do strengthening activities that work your legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms two or more days a week. (It’s best to avoid working the same muscle group two days in a row to avoid injuries.) If lifting weights isn’t for you, you can consider other forms of strength training, such as working with resistance bands, using your body weight for resistance (during push-ups and sit-ups, for example) and yoga. You can also choose to combine aerobics with strength training—three days of combined cardio, strength and stretching exercises over four weeks improved executive function, memory and processing speed in one group of older people. And here’s a bonus: Exercise also helps prevent and treat depression that could otherwise speed cognitive decline.

Get Your Vitamin D

Scientists have known for some time that vitamin B12 is important for healthy brain function (one of its roles is maintaining the myelin sheath of the synapses between neurons in the brain). Now vitamin D is emerging as another key nutrient in cognition. Researchers at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom were surprised to learn that not getting enough of it may double one’s risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The nutrient may protect the brain in several ways. There are vitamin D receptors in the hippocampus and other areas of the brain involved with memory, for example, and the nutrient may counter the effects of amyloid plaques, one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s.

Your Stay-Sharp Plan: You may be able to protect yourself simply by getting the recommended amount from foods (fish, fortified dairy and eggs are good sources), small doses of sunscreen-free sun exposure and/or supplements (with your doctor’s OK). Although more research needs to happen to see if vitamin D actually reduces the risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s, your efforts will also help strengthen your bones and possibly protect against many other diseases, including cancer, autoimmune conditions and heart failure.

Give Meditation a Shot

There was a time when doctors thought that the brain lost its ability to remodel itself with age. Today, there’s an entire field of research on neuroplasticity. Among other discoveries, we now know that some of the regions in adult brains retain a “childlike” ability to form new connections, which may be one way we learn and form memories into old age. Meditation is emerging as a way to change brain structure, connections and function to ward off cognitive decline. In fact, more than one study has linked meditation to increases in gray matter in adults—meaning it can literally grow your brain.

Your Stay-Sharp Plan: Find a form of meditation that works for you. A variety of meditation techniques, including mindfulness, transcendental, Buddhist and Zen meditation practices, may help stem the tide of age-related losses in attention, memory, executive function and how quickly we process information. As you begin a practice of meditation, you can start with a short amount of time (even just two minutes) and work up to a longer practice; meditating often is more critical than doing it for long stretches of time. Keep in mind that just five days of meditative practice can improve attention and lower anxiety and stress-related cortisol levels, but it likely takes months of practice to change brain structure.

Have a Cup of Joe

Caffeine is a well-known cognitive enhancer: After a cup of coffee, you may feel sharper and more alert. Some studies show that coffee and tea improve cognitive performance. And it turns out that the potential brain-boosting effects of caffeine aren’t completely fleeting. A single 200 mg dose of caffeine improved long-term memory in a study published in Nature. It likely works by blocking the action of adenosine, a compound that interferes with the function of a memory-enhancing hormone called norepinephrine. Caffeine’s memory-enhancing abilities may even help protect against cognitive decline.

Your Stay-Sharp Plan: Unless you’re sensitive to caffeine, 200 milligrams (roughly one strong cup of coffee) is a safe daily dose; too much java can make some people jittery or nauseous, and it can affect sleep when enjoyed too late in the day. (Pregnant women should drink less than 200 milligrams per day, and people with cardiac rhythmic disturbances or uncontrolled high blood pressure should avoid caffeine altogether.) Besides, when it comes to long-term memory storage, more coffee doesn’t seem to work better.