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5 Tips to Keep Your Brain Healthy

What to do to charge those neurons and lower your risk for disease

By Emily Gurnon

You probably know that eating less fat is good for your heart and that exercise can help you lose weight. But how much do you know about keeping your brain healthy?
We’re not talking here about brain games, whose benefits are debatable. We’re talking about participating in things that many people in a recent survey failed to rate among the top activities important for brain health.
Brains On Our Minds
AARP surveyed 1,200 Americans 34 and up on how they felt about the importance of brain health and whether they knew how to improve it.

(MORE: How Sex Helps Your Brain)

Ninety-three percent said it was very important or extremely important. That may be due to widespread concern about dementia. “Clearly, they had some anxiety about that,” said Lynn Mento, senior vice president of membership for AARP.
But only 18 percent listed socializing with friends or family as among the top three ways to improve or maintain brain health. Research has shown it is vital.
“The brain, like the rest of our body, has evolved to recognize that the more social you are, the more likely you are to survive,” Mento says. “The other reason why it seems to be important is when you are socializing … you just have to be a little bit more tuned-up cognitively.”

(MORE: How You Can Make Your Brain Smarter Every Day)
Here are four more ways to keep your brain on its toes, as Mento says:

  • Keep fit. Exercise is critically important. “The brain absorbs 20 percent of the oxygen in your blood, so it’s a hungry little beast,” Mento says. Midlife physical activity is associated with a decreased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Watch your stress. Research has shown that chronic stress can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, for instance. “Even just five minutes of meditation helps, or hatha yoga,” Mento says. Sleep is an important part of regulating stress.
  • Eat right. “What is good for your body is also good for your brain,” Mento says. Many people don’t make that connection. Among her top healthy-brain foods: salmon and walnuts, which are great sources of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Exercise your brain. Not necessarily by doing Sudoku or online games, but by stretching your brain in ways it’s not accustomed to, Mento says. The biggest gains may come from an ambitious endeavor like trying to learn a language or play an instrument. But smaller goals are helpful, too. If you are right-handed, try writing with your left hand for an hour a week, Mento says. “What’s not good for your brain is the rote, the routine. What’s good for your brain is the new, the unexpected, the harder, the fresh.” If you take walks, vary your route.

The survey was conducted in August 2014 as a part of AARP’s Staying Sharp membership option.

Emily Gurnon
Emily Gurnon is the former Senior Content Editor covering health and caregiving for Next Avenue. Her stories include a series of articles on guardianship abuse that was funded by the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program. She previously spent 20 years as an award-winning newspaper reporter in the San Francisco Bay Area and St. Paul. Reach her through her website. Read More
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