Research continues to demonstrate that, throughout life, it’s just as important to pay attention to our brain health as it is to pay attention to our heart health.  According to many studies, there are proactive steps we can take each and every day to keep our brains healthy as we age.  

Here are seven daily rituals you can easily adopt.

1. Eat a healthy diet 

There are no secrets to eating well for a healthy brain.

  • Be sure to include vegetables, fruits, herbs, nuts, beans and whole grains in your regular diet.  
  • Meals should center around plant-based foods and may include moderate amounts of dairy, poultry, eggs and seafoodRed meat should only be enjoyed occasionally.  
  • Steer clear of high-sugar content and processed foods and gravitate towards high protein, low saturated fat foods.

2. Move your body

It’s important to get regular exercise to keep your brain healthy.

  • Physical activity increases oxygen-rich blood flow to the parts of the brain responsible for thinking.  
  • It also helps increase the connections between brain cells (synapses).  These new synapses make the brain more efficient, flexible and adaptive, which results in better brain function.  
  • Walking for 30 minutes each day, taking a dance class, and swimming are all activities that will not only benefit your body but also your brain.  Whichever activity you choose, be sure that it is safe for you and that you enjoy it. Talk to your doctor before beginning any new exercise program.

3. Reduce stress and anxiety 

While our bodies are designed to handle normal levels of stress, too much stress isn’t healthy.  

  • People who are chronically stressed, anxious or depressed tend to have higher levels of the hormone cortisol.
  • Too much stress can lead to cortisol buildup in the brain which interferes with brain functioning, often causing what some refer to as “brain fog.”  On a long-term basis excessive cortisol can destroy brain cells, resulting in brain shrinkage.
  • Mindfulness and meditation are also great ways to reduce stress and anxiety, along with exercise. Taking just eight to 12 minutes per day to meditate can help reduce dangerous cortisol levels and produce a sense of overall wellness.

4. Get a good night’s sleep

Sleep plays an important role in memory retention, alertness and coping ability.

  • When you receive new information, your brain needs time to process and consolidate what you’ve learned and move that information from short-term to long-term storage.  Sleep is when your brain does all this “filing work” that is necessary to keep your brain organized.  
  • It also is the time for “housekeeping” when your brain removes a toxic protein known as beta-amyloid (commonly found in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease) from the brain.  
  • If you are not waking up feeling rested and refreshed, or if you constantly find yourself reaching for over-the-counter sleep aids, talk with your health care provider sooner rather than later.   

5. Successfully manage your health conditions and medications 

Heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other health care conditions can put your brain and body at risk.  It’s important, in consultation with your health care provider, to manage these conditions successfully following their recommendations.  

  • You may need medication(s) to successfully treat these diseases.  If this is the case, be sure that you are following the directions the prescriber has given you.  
  • If you are having side effects from the medications, or feel they are no longer necessary, don’t stop taking them without speaking to your health care provider.  
  • Conversely, make sure that any additions you make to your medications, including vitamins and supplements, are done in consultation with your provider and/or pharmacist to assure they do not adversely impact those medications you are currently taking.

6. Learn new things

Research shows that learning new activities increases cognitive reserve in our brain. It stimulates new connections between nerve cells, and helps the brain generate new cells.  New learning is the best for building cognitive reserve.  

  • Try learning a new language, study how to play a new musical instrument, or take up a new hobby to increase and strengthen brain connections.  
  • Keep your brain sharp with other mentally stimulating activity, such as reading, crossword puzzles, or Sudoku.
  • The important thing is to do something you enjoy so that you stick with it long-term.

7. Stay social

Spend time with old friends and make new ones.  Research has shown that strong social ties are associated with better brain health, decreased depression, a lower risk of dementia, lower blood pressure and longer life expectancy.  

  • Whether in person (taking proper COVID-19 precautions), by phone or video chat, or online through email and social media, make sure to keep in touch with others.  
  • Find opportunities to be part of your community by volunteering, joining clubs, and making regular dates to engage with others.  

There you have it – seven simple steps to keep your brain fit as you age.  Wake up refreshed, grab a healthy breakfast, take your medications as directed, head to a yoga class, lunch with friends, and then start that Master Gardener class that you’ve been planning to take.  

Whatever you do, make sure it is safe for you, that you’re communicating with your health care provider, having fun, engaging with others, and living your best life.  

For more tips to keep you healthy as we all grow older, visit the Aging section of our Lifespan Living health and wellness blog.

Jonathan Drake, MD

Dr. Jonathan Drake is associate director of the Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Disorders Center at Rhode Island Hospital, and specializes in aging and dementia. His clinical and research interests are in the early detection and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.