We don’t often think about brain health. But research continues to demonstrate that it’s just as important to pay attention to the health of our brain as that of our heart

Fortunately, there are steps we can take every day to keep our brains healthy as we age. Here are seven daily rituals you can easily adopt that are good for your aging brain.

1. Eating well for a healthy brain

What you eat impacts your brain and its overall functioning. There are general rules you can easily follow to eat well and support your brain’s health.

  • Be sure to include vegetables, fruits, herbs, nuts, beans, and whole grains in your regular diet.  
  • Meals should be focused on plant-based foods, but 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 opt for foods that are high in protein and low in saturated fat.

2. Your brain needs exercise too

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.  
  • Exercise helps increase the connections between brain cells (synapses).  These new synapses make the brain more efficient, flexible, and adaptive, resulting in better brain function.  
  • Walking for 30 minutes each day, taking a dance class, and swimming are just some of the activities that will not only benefit your body but also your brain.  Whichever activity you choose, be sure 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 for better brain health

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 to rest your brain

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.  
  • Sleep is also 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 diseasehigh blood pressurediabetes, and other health care conditions can put your brain and body at risk.  Working with your health care provider and following recommendations are critical to managing these conditions successfully.  

  • 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.  
  • Make sure that any additions or changes 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. Challenge your brain by learning new skills

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 and keep in touch to give your brain a boost

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 precautions if a person has an illness or weakened immune system), by phone or video chat, or online through email and social media, be 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 classlunch 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.