From meditation to nutrition, these science-backed strategies keep your brain healthy as you age.
There’s a reason the brain is nicknamed “the three-pound universe.” From churning out dreams to storing memories, there’s so much that this fascinating, infinitely complex organ can do — and humans are cracking open new information about it every single year.
Fortunately, we’re living through a time when leapfrog advancements are taking place in the fields of neurobiology and medicine — specifically, with scientists racing against the clock (literally) to better understand, treat, and hopefully one day prevent neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and ALS. And with all of that academic study — and our newly uncovered knowledge about what the brain needs in order to function, from sleep quality to the connection between physical exercise and cognitive health — those researchers have uncovered a ton of invaluable learnings that we can put to practical, daily use.
Put another way, it’s never been easier to know how to take care of your brain and keep yourself cognitively sharp as you age.
In fact, recent studies have suggested a startling idea: By committing to radically healthy lifestyles, people might be able to not just live long, healthy lives, but even to reverse damaging health conditions that we previously believed to be irreversible.
That got us thinking… Which lifestyle habits are the most important when it comes to brain health? We’re not talking snake oil fixes (hello, Alex Jones’ $600 vitamins), but proven strategies for staying cognitively sharp for as long as possible. We reached out to some of the top experts in the field of brain health to find out what they recommend for keeping your mind agile through the decades. Here’s what they had to say about how to protect and improve your brain function as you age.
Prioritize hobbies that allow your brain to learn and strategize
“A great way to keep your brain healthy is to regularly create new learning experiences and cognitive challenges,” explains Jessica Z.K. Caldwell, director of the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement Prevention Center at Cleveland Clinic. In particular, Dr. Caldwell suggests “hobbies and games that involve memory, problem-solving, and strategizing — like chess.”
Here’s why these games are so good for you: Continuing to learn and take on new mental challenges actually trains your brain to work at its optimal capacity.
“When you learn, your brain creates new connections between brain cells,” Dr. Caldwell says. “We do not ‘keep’ or remember everything we learn, but the more you commit to a practice, the more your brain will cement those new connections and the more permanently it will keep those memories.”
If chess or sudoku isn’t your game, don’t worry — board games and math equations aren’t the only way to keep your brain engaged.
“Two great examples of mental activities for keeping your brain sharp through challenges are learning a language and learning an instrument,” Dr. Caldwell suggests. “Exercise is also great for keeping our brains sharp. It directly supports brain regions that make new memories. Interestingly, if you can think and exercise at the same time — like practicing a speech while walking — you might get even more brain boost.”
Another way to approach this is to take an activity you already do (like the Sunday crossword puzzle, or your daily Wordle) and time yourself. Better yet — don’t just time yourself, but also try to maintain a conversation with your partner or a friend while you do it.
“Speeded tasks that require multitasking have been associated with a greater likelihood of maintaining activities of daily living,” explains Marilyn Albert, Ph.D., a professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins and director of the Division of Cognitive Neuroscience.
With that said, you shouldn’t feel pressured to force anything. This kind of process only works if you do it frequently, Albert notes, so “the most important thing is to find an activity you enjoy doing, so you keep doing it.”
Take a holistic lifestyle approach with the SHIELD method
A great way to consider improving your lifestyle from a bird’s eye view is to use the SHIELD method, created by Rudolph Tanzi, Ph.D., an author, Harvard professor of neurology, and director of the Alzheimer’s Genome Project. Tanzi tells us the strategy summarizes much of the work he’d shared in his three best-selling books on the brain. Here’s what the acronym represents:
Interaction with others
Learning new things
Diet (Specifically, Dr. Tanzi suggests a focus on plant-rich meals.)
By keeping an acronym like SHIELD in your back pocket, you can make sure you’re taking a holistic approach to your lifestyle, checking in on every angle from time to time, rather than simply doubling down on just one of the six relevant factors and ignoring the rest.
“These lifestyle changes can help at any point,” Dr. Tanzi notes, “but are much more for prevention than treatment.”
In other words: You should aim to make consistent, healthy lifestyle choices as soon as possible. As for what these strategies have in common, he explains, “They’re all geared towards reducing inflammation in the brain.”
Get into a daily meditation practice
The benefits of meditation are celebrated in both western and eastern medicinal fields, and as it turns out, this thousand-year-old practice might just be the key to preventing memory loss. In his book Super Brain, Dr. Tanzi notes that meditation can be a critical practice in anti-aging strategies, thanks to a little thing called telomeres.
Telomeres are chemical structures that exist at the end of every chromosome. Dr. Tanzi describes them as acting “like the period at the end of a sentence — [they] close off the chromosome’s DNA and help to keep it intact.” As you get older, telomeres tend to fray and get shorter, which gets in the way of your cells dividing properly. If telomeres become too short, you can start to lose parts of your genetic code that keep your mind and body functioning properly.
Here’s where meditation comes in. A recent study by the University of California at Davis and UC San Francisco proved that meditation can lead to an increase in the enzyme that keeps telomeres strong and replenished over time.
The authors of the study were quick to note that meditation alone might not be able to permanently keep telomeres safe from atrophy, but rather that “the sum total” of effects at a given meditation retreat also contributed to the effect. This includes (you guessed it) proper sleep conditions, a decrease in stress for the participants, and a strong nutritional regimen.
When in doubt, treat your brain the same way you treat your heart
The brain and the heart might be two wildly different organs, but scientists are increasingly of the opinion that their health is closely intertwined. Studies show that many of the same risk factors for heart disease (like diabetes and high blood pressure) are also risk factors for brain diseases like Alzheimer’s.
The connection between brain and heart health can be staggering from some angles. For example: An estimated 80 percent of individuals with Alzheimer’s also have cardiovascular disease.
When it comes to diet in particular, you should feel comfortable knowing this single truth: There’s nothing you need to do for your brain that isn’t also good for your other vital organs, too. Your heart, your brain, and other essential components of our bodies all benefit from the same types of diets — and while the top recommended diet will alternate, depending on which doctor you speak with, they all seem to share the same recommendations of minimizing fats and carbohydrates and prioritizing plant-rich meals.
“The overall conclusion is that diets that are good for heart health are good for brain health,” Dr. Albert notes. “Any diet that keeps your blood pressure down, your cholesterol down, and reduces your weight are good for all of the blood vessels throughout your body, including your brain.”
Of course, each person’s nutritional needs are different, so it might be productive to meet with a doctor or nutritionist to figure out which specific diet is best for you.
In the coming years, scientists will continue to study the connections between the brain and heart, but in the meantime, we can all benefit from the simple rule of thumb that what’s good for one is good for the other. In short, all those great lifestyle choices you make — exercising regularly, stimulating your mind, eating healthy, avoiding tobacco — will benefit both of these vital organs.
So the next time you go on a long walk or set up a chess board with a friend, take a moment to congratulate yourself — and remember that your body’s major machinery will thank you.
Our series Inside Your Mind will be back on Saturday, Nov. 19, with a fascinating report on how your sex life affects the health of your brain. If you missed our first installment on how the brain changes as you age, now’s the perfect time to catch up.