Set yourself up to be in tip-top shape — body and mind!
Your muscles get weak when you don’t use them. Guess what? So does your brain. These 7 lifestyle factors that affect brain function should become part of your routine.
Although it’s not a muscle, the brain benefits from the same healthy habits that keep your body in tip-top shape. Research suggests several lifestyle factors that affect brain function, including regular exercise, intellectual stimulation, and even sound sleep habits, may reduce the risk of cognitive impairment.
We can’t completely stop memory impairment — forgetfulness is a natural part of aging — but we can maintain the brain health we have. If you’re not already adopting these seven lifestyle habits, it’s never too late to start!
1. Exercise regularly. Several studies have demonstrated the benefits of physical activity on brain health. Staying active promotes growth and maintenance of neurons, improves memory and problem-solving skills, and supports brain growth.
To reap the brain and body benefits of exercise, AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health recommends older adults get at least 20 minutes of aerobic exercise a day, as well as two strength training sessions per week. You can easily fit this in by walking, swimming, gardening, dancing, or riding the stationary bike
2. Get quality sleep. A good night’s sleep provides a wealth of benefits: It helps keep your spirits high, your immune system strong, and your energy levels up. Lack of sleep increases risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, and obesity.
Older adults often wake up earlier than most. While early rising doesn’t affect brain health, falling short of the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep will.
Sunlight exposure, a regular sleep schedule, and a soothing nighttime routine will all help you catch some zzzzs. If you’re still having trouble sleeping, ask your doctor if it’s possible any of your medications are disrupting your sleep.
3. Seek intellectual stimulation. Your brain needs constant stimulation to stay strong. The Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, says the brain has a reserve that helps it adapt and respond to change and resist damage. As you learn, perform new activities, and pursue new interests, you improve your brain reserve.
All sorts of activities can up your brain power. The key is to find things that are new and/or mentally challenging. Many of them can be done virtually if needed! A few suggestions include:
- Play or learn to play chess.
- Take a class. Find something that interests you, whether it’s world history or watercolor painting.
- Earn a degree or certification.
- Play or learn to play a musical instrument.
- Learn a new language.
- Start quilting.
- Dance like no one is watching.
- Play bridge.
- Play board games.
- Play memory games.
- Visit an art or science museum.
- Write poems.
4. Maintain social connections. Among other lifestyle factors that affect brain function, chatting with friends, family, and acquaintances lifts your mood and protects against memory loss. Positive, meaningful social engagement is associated with improved physical and mental health, while isolation is linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Volunteering has an especially positive effect on our health, happiness, and mental function. A review of Experience Corps volunteers ages 60 and up experienced improvements in the prefrontal cortex — an area of the brain vulnerable to aging — after volunteering.
Staying socially connected can take many forms. Participating in religious services, attending community events (in person or virtually), and talking on the phone with friends and loved ones all help people feel connected and intellectually stimulated. Pets are also a wonderful source of love, happiness, and social life enhancement. Even as COVID-19 changes the way we do things, Spectrum Retirement is committed to ensuring our residents stay connected.
5. Don’t smoke. The sooner you quit smoking, the sooner you improve your physical and cognitive health. Smoking increases risk of cognitive decline; once you quit, you reduce your risk. After 10 years of not smoking, your rate of cognitive decline is comparable to people who have never smoked.
Need a few more reasons to quit? Smoking not only ups your odds of lung disease, it also increases anxiety and tension — both of which are detrimental to mental and brain health.
6. Keep your heart healthy. The same risk factors for heart disease and stroke apply to dementia. A new study from the American College of Cardiology shows people with a higher risk of heart disease have increased markers for Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers followed more than 1,500 mentally healthy people for 21 years. The people with the highest heart disease risk over the study period also had the sharpest decline in memory and ability to compare letters, numbers, and objects.
To keep your heart strong, get plenty of exercise (see #1), maintain or work toward a healthy weight, don’t smoke (see #5), and choose fresh fruits and vegetables whenever possible. So many of these lifestyle factors that affect brain function are interrelated.
7. Be mindful of mental health. All the tips above benefit not only brain health but also our psychological health. Yet, depression can still creep up like a thick fog. Researchers have linked depression with an increased dementia risk. The risk increases in people with both depression and type 2 diabetes. Spectrum retirement makes mental and physical health top priorities for our residents.
A 2019 study found that people who had depression had lower cognitive function later in life than people without depression. The researchers emphasized that not everyone with mood disorders will develop dementia. And you can halt the trend: By building a foundation for positive mental health, you can preserve brain health. Talk with your doctor to find strategies that work for you. A few good tools include therapy, exercise, meditation, and medication when necessary.
A little absentmindedness is a natural part of the aging process. Dementia doesn’t have to be. Incorporate healthy habits into your daily life to keep your mind, body, and brain in the best shape possible.