Adopt These 7 Habits for a Healthier Brain

Changing your lifestyle may preserve memory and thinking skills, but forming new habits takes commitment and an understanding of what you need.

You know that lifting weights makes your muscles stronger and quitting smoking is the best gift you can give your lungs. But what are the steps you can take for better brain health?

It turns out that the prescription for a healthier brain isn’t complicated. But it does require commitment. Psychologist Ana-Maria Vranceanu, PhD, founder and director of the Integrated Brain Health Clinic and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, offers seven healthy habits that can boost thinking skills, memory and other brain functions. They are the cornerstones of the MGH Institute of Brain Health’s 12-week “My Healthy Brain” program.

“We teach not only how to develop healthy habits, but also how to maintain them by adapting the environment (family, daily routines) to make healthy habits easy, and returning to unhealthy habits challenging,” Dr. Vranceanu says. “We don’t live in a vacuum, and getting the entire family on board is the most efficient and effective way to make sustained lifestyle changes.”

Lifestyle factors have immediate and delayed impacts on brain function, she adds. “For example, if we miss sleep, we feel sluggish the next day,” Dr. Vranceanu says. “This is because of short-term impacts on processing speed—how quickly we can take in and react to new information—and attention. Eating a lot of sugar can lead to insulin spikes and a subsequent feeling of mental fogginess and fatigue. Other factors that can influence brain health in the short term include use of medications and substances. On the other hand, exercise has an immediate positive effect on the brain, through an immediate drop in stress hormones, similar to the effect of antidepressants. In the long term, these factors can influence our brain health by either helping to preserve and promote functioning, such as healthy growth and repair, or contribute to the deterioration of our brain functioning.”

The following seven behaviors are associated with improving brain capacity and enhancing your brain health.

#1 Stress Management

All too often, we tend to ignore stress or refuse to take it seriously. Learning how to manage your stress is a wise investment of your time.

“Chronic stress causes wear and tear on the body, and, over time, leads to a host of negative outcomes throughout the body, such as decreased immune functioning,” Dr. Vranceanu says. Stress takes a toll on brain health by impacting cognition (e.g., decision making, reasoning, attention) and emotional functioning (e.g., depression, irritability, anxiety). It can also cause inflammation in the blood vessels, interfere with sleep, and cause headaches, muscle pain and other short- and long-term symptoms.

“We teach skills related to goal setting and motivation, to ensure that patients are setting themselves up for success,” Dr. Vranceanu says. “Stress management skills, like the ‘energy battery,’ encourage patients to become more aware of how daily stressors are impacting their brain health, and to take steps to replenish and recharge their brain reserve.”

If you are feeling stressed more than you used to, consider seeing a therapist to help you identify the sources of stress in your life and the strategies to best manage them. Learning relaxation strategies, such as meditation and breathing techniques, will also help.

#2 Sleep

Sleep is a building block of good mental and physical health, says Dr. Vranceanu, whose program helps patients improve their sleep quantity and duration. “For example, we teach skills related to building healthy sleep routines and reducing screen time and stress before bed,” she says. “We also teach patients how to monitor changes in their sleep and behavior over time.”

A healthy sleep routine usually includes the following behaviors:

  • No caffeine late in the day, and no alcohol right before bed
  • Making sure your bedroom is cool and dark and that your mattress and pillow are comfortable
  • Getting out of bed and doing something quietly if you are unable to fall asleep within 20 minutes of turning out the light.

#3 Physical Activity

The American Heart Association and other medical organizations recommend getting 150 minutes of aerobic activity every week. Dr. Vranceanu acknowledges that reaching that goal can be difficult in our society, but it remains a worthy target.

“Regular aerobic exercise benefits the brain on multiple fronts, ranging from molecular to behavioral levels,” Dr. Vranceanu says. “Exercise increases heart rate, which pumps more oxygen to the brain. It also aids the bodily release of a plethora of hormones, all of which participate in aiding and providing a nourishing environment for the growth of brain cells. Exercise stimulates the brain plasticity by stimulating growth of new connections between cells in a wide array of important cortical areas of the brain. Exercise increases growth factors in the brain—making it easier for the brain to grow new neuronal connections. This is particularly important for older adults, because it can prevent cognitive decline.”

If you feel you can’t find the time to exercise, look at your schedule to see where you can implement longer blocks of activity and also how you can decrease sedentary time by engaging in small bouts of activity throughout the day. Those 150 minutes can be reached 10 minutes at a time if necessary.

#4 Nutrition

How are you feeding your brain? What you eat doesn’t just affect your waistline. Your brain re-lies on a steady supply of nutrients to keep working optimally. Proteins, vitamins B1, B9 and C, as well as minerals, such as zinc, calcium and magnesium, are all key to keeping your brain healthy.

Dr. Vranceanu’s program promotes the MyPlate guidelines of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They call for a diet composed of 40 percent vegetables, 10 percent fruit, 30 percent whole grains and 20 percent lean protein. MyPlate also includes a few daily servings of low-fat or non-fat dairy for those who can tolerate items such as milk or yogurt.

Dr. Vranceanu also teaches participants about eating behaviors, such as managing hunger and fullness, and tracking your food intake so you can see the changes you need to make. Managing hunger includes strategies such as exercising and staying busy, so your mind doesn’t lead you over to the pantry throughout the day. Keeping your water intake up can help, as can making sure you eat enough protein and high-fiber whole grains to help you feel fuller longer.

#5 Substance and Medication Use

Taking your medications as prescribed and while avoiding or reducing certain unhealthy substances can have huge impacts to the health of your brain.

“The majority of Americans who take prescription medications struggle with following instructions,” Dr. Vranceanu says. “We teach skills to help patients take medications as prescribed. We also assist patients in identifying motivations for substance (e.g., alcohol, tobacco, sugar) use, and discuss healthy coping strategies.”

If you have concerns about your substance use, have an honest conversation with your doctor.

#6 Social Relationships

A growing body of research supports the idea that your cognitive and emotional health depend on a strong, supportive social network. But it can take a little extra effort to craft and maintain social connections later in life.

“As we age, our social circles tend to change,” Dr. Vranceanu says. “Milestones like retirement can decrease our opportunities for socialization.” She adds that older adults need to pay attention to the amount of social support they give and receive, while also feeling empowered to ask others for what they want or need.

Sometimes building a social network can be done by making friendships around hobbies or healthy lifestyles.

#7 Building Brain Reserve

You hear this advice all the time, but it’s incredibly valuable as you seek to preserve and promote greater brain health: Keep your mind occupied and challenged every day.

Brain-challenging activities cover a wide range of options, including:

  • Playing logic and math puzzles
  • Learning a new language
  • Playing a musical instrument or learning how to play an instrument
  • Traveling
  • Reading challenging novels, nonfiction books and articles
  • Taking up a new hobby, such as chess, painting, scrapbooking, or gourmet cooking
  • Diving into culture with museum and theater outings

“Engaging in challenging and enriching activities is critical to brain health,” Dr. Vranceanu says. “We teach skills to help patients become lifelong learners and build brain reserve. For patients who are experiencing cognitive concerns, we teach skills to help them cope and live with the best possible quality of life given their challenges.”

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