Eat right. Exercise. Get enough sleep. You know what’s needed to keep your body healthy as you age. But what about your brain? Recent studies reveal that many of the healthy habits that keep our bodies in good working order are good for our cognitive health as well. Here are five things you can do to help keep your mind sharp and stave off age-related cognitive decline.
1. Eat a Healthy Diet
Following a Mediterranean diet—high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, nuts, legumes and olive oil, and low in dairy products, red meat and alcohol—is associated with higher cognitive functioning, according to a 2020 National Institutes of Health study in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association. Study participants who most closely adhered to the Mediterranean diet had the lowest risk of cognitive impairment, and high fish and vegetable consumption in particular appeared to have the greatest protective effect.
A 2021 study by researchers in Germany published in the journal Neurology had similar findings. The researchers said the Mediterranean diet may protect the brain from protein deposits and brain atrophy that can lead to memory loss and dementia.
2. Stay Physically Active
Getting regular exercise is one of the best things you can do to lower your risk of developing dementia, researchers say, pointing to several studies that have shown an association between physical activity and improved cognitive functioning.
In a 2019 study in the journal Neurology, researchers at Rush University found that older adults who move more than average, either through daily exercise or routine physical activity such as housework, may maintain more of their memory and thinking skills than people who are less active.
A 2021 study by researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease revealed that regular brisk walking improved brain health in older people who had been diagnosed with memory impairments. The researchers found that when older adults with mild memory loss followed an exercise program for a year, the blood flow to their brains increased.
3. If You Smoke, Quit
Studies have shown that people who smoke cigarettes experience a faster cognitive decline as they age than nonsmokers do. A 2012 study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry suggests that smoking is particularly bad for men. The researchers examined the cognitive data of more than 7,000 men and women over 12 years and found that middle-aged male smokers experienced faster cognitive decline than either nonsmokers or female smokers.
4. Get Adequate Sleep
Anybody who has had to deal with brain fog the day after a bad night’s sleep can see there’s a connection between sleep and healthy brain functioning. An analysis of 27 observational studies published in the journal Sleep in 2017 revealed that people with sleep problems face a significantly higher risk of cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.
One theory for why inadequate sleep can affect brain health is that when we sleep, harmful proteins that build up in the brain during the day are flushed out. A 2018 study by National Institutes of Health researchers published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that losing just one night of sleep led to an increase in beta-amyloid, a protein associated with impaired brain function and Alzheimer’s disease.
5. Keep Healthy Relationships
Having strong social ties is another way to help stave off cognitive decline, studies suggest. A 2018 Florida State University study in the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences involving more than 12,000 participants revealed that people who reported greater feelings of loneliness had a 40% higher risk of developing dementia than people who were not lonely.
A 2021 study by Penn State researchers in the journal PLOS ONE revealed that when adults ages 70 to 90 reported more frequent pleasant social interactions, they had better cognitive performance on that day and the following two days.
Learn more about healthy aging at Steps for Living.