Looking for ways to protect your brain health? Make these lifestyle changes part of your New Year’s resolution list.
As we power ahead into a new year, we’re making all kinds of promises to ourselves. These science-backed resolutions can help make you healthier, happier, and could even extend your life.
1. Surprise, Surprise: Exercise
Exercising is a classic addition to New Year’s Resolutions lists, but did you know it’s one of the best ways to boost your memory and protect your brain health?
According to neuropsychologist Dr. Aaron Bonner-Jackson of the Cleveland Clinic, physical exercise promotes cardiovascular health, improves blood flow to the brain, lowers stress hormones, and reduces inflammation — all of which are essential to cognitive functioning. It can also lead to positive physical changes in the brain, promoting neuroplasticity in the hippocampus — a very important area of the brain for memory.
You don’t have to become a marathoner to reap these benefits: Even little efforts can move the dial. What kind of exercise you pick or how often you do it aren’t as important as getting your blood flowing. And if aerobic exercise is too high-impact, set a goal for yourself to swim, walk, or even sauna.
2. Go for ‘Awe Walks’
Speaking of talking a walk, tuning into the natural beauty around you has been found to offer even more mental health benefits. A recent study by researchers at the University of California San Francisco Memory and Aging Center and the Global Brain Health Institute encouraged participants to take short ‘awe’ walks weekly. Participants who focused on the environment around them with greater detail than usual reported elevated feelings of awe and joy — not to mention less stress on a daily basis.
What have you got to lose? As Virginia Sturm, an author of the study and associate professor of neurology put it: “A little more joy and a little more connectedness with the world around us is something all of us could use these days.”
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3. Sure, Physical Exercise Is Great — But How About Cognitive Exercise?
According to neurologist and neuroscientist Dr. Majid Fotuhi, brain games that require you to “think fast, solve problems fast, or respond fast” are a great cognitive workout.
“There’s a part of your brain in front that’s important for attention, concentration, and there’s a part of the brain on the side that’s important for memory,” he told Being Patient. “You can work out these different brain areas just like you can work out different muscles.”
According to Fotuhi, challenging your brain — whether through completing a daily crossword puzzle, playing cards or board games, or learning a new word every day — can help to stimulate your brain and give it the “workout” it deserves.
4. Eat More Veggies
Better eating is another frequent New Year’s pledge — but here’s an extra reason to get you motivated: Two recent studies, one from the National Institute of Aging, and one from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA), have revealed much about the great potential benefits of diet in regard to preventing Alzheimer’s. Two recommended diets for brain health are the MIND Diet and The Canadian Brain Health Food Guide, both of which prioritize giving your brain the nutrients it needs, most of which are mainly found in plant-based foods.
Researchers at the Loma Linda University of Health found that eating a whole-food, plant-based diet — which excludes meat, dairy, eggs, and all processed foods entirely — can reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s by 53 percent. Similarly, researchers at Rush University in Chicago and the Tufts Human Nutrition Research Center in Boston found that when older adults ate at least one serving of leafy greens (such as spinach or kale) they reported slower age-related cognitive decline. If you can’t commit to an entirely plant-based or vegan diet, try to incorporate an abundance of vegetables and whole foods into your diet daily.
5. Help an Older Loved One With Their Cognitive Health, Too
We know, especially in these times of increased isolation, that social engagement and friendship are central to good brain health. Loneliness has been found to increase dementia risk by as much as 40 percent. Social act as simple making a friendly phone call can make a positive difference.
And for friends and loved ones actively living with dementia, Dr. Eric B. Larson, a senior investigator at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute, wrote for Being Patient about how helpful it can be for older adults to engage in the act of reminiscing about old times. You may notice while speaking to someone living with dementia that their older memories seem to stick with them more than recent ones. According to Larson, memory centers in the hippocampus are likely responsible for holding onto memories from so long ago. “We should strive to treasure the miraculous ability of the brain to hold onto the past as well as it does,” he wrote for Being Patient.
Sharing these memories is so therapeutic for people navigating neurodegeneration, there’s a name for it: reminiscence therapy. And, it comes with a bonus: Listening to a friend builds up your cognitive resilience, too.