It’s never too soon to learn new skills and adopt lifestyle changes that help keep your brain sharp. And for the estimated 6.5 million Americans age 65 and older living with Alzheimer’s disease, learning to play an instrument or picking up gardening could come with exceptional benefits.
“More than 30 percent of dementia risk is reversible,” says Carolyn Fredericks, a Yale Medicine neurologist.
People with uncontrolled high blood pressure, untreated depression, unmanaged diabetes, a smoking habit or a sedentary lifestyle increase their risk of cognitive decline, she says. Despite these various genetic factors or conditions, however, research shows that challenging our brains can delay cognitive decline and lower the risk of developing dementia.
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And sure, doing crossword puzzles or playing strategic games like chess and bridge are undoubtedly good for your brain. But the good news is learning any new and interesting skill is equally beneficial — whether it be a new language, hobby or sport.
So, pick a few brain-stimulating activities that appeal to you, Fredericks says, because all lifelong learning keeps your brain synapses firing. Below, she shares a few ideas to get you started.
1. Be social.
Humans are social beings, and we need social interaction for optimum health. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Fredericks says, some of her older patients who couldn’t pivot to virtual meetings felt lonely.
But multiple studies have found that isolation can affect cognition as well as mood, she continues. This is why she recommends people engage in activities that get them out into the community and around other people.
Start with something social, Fredericks says, and if it also challenges your brain or involves moving your body, all the better. Dancing with a partner, for example, during which you must follow both the music and another person, provides triple the benefits.
“The more it can be social and intellectually stimulating, that’s great as a bonus,” she says. Reading is also good — and being part of a book club, where you socialize and discuss the book, is even better.
2. Break a sweat.
What’s good for the heart is good for the brain; after all, the heart is responsible for pumping blood through the network of blood vessels that nourishes the brain.
When people have conditions that damage the heart and blood vessels, their risk of developing Alzheimer’s or vascular dementia appears to increase as well, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. These include untreated heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes and high cholesterol.
For heart and brain health, the association’s guidelines suggest “moderate intensity” exercise for at least 30 minutes five times a week, or an hour three times a week. A gentle walk, while beneficial, is not what researchers mean when recommending cardio exercises, Fredericks says.
“If you and I were going hiking and we were going up some hills and down some hills and we were out of breath, but not so much that we couldn’t talk to each other,” she says, “that’s the kind of moderate intensity [recommended].”
3. Quit smoking.
Researchers have found that cognitive impairment in people in their 40s who had smoked a pack a day for more than 10 years. Those who had quit smoking or were defined as minimal smokers, on the other hand, did not have the same cognitive declines.
Though it’s well documented that smoking harms your body even after you’ve quit, “it’s way better to quit when you’re 40 than 50 and better to quit when you’re 50 than 60,” Fredericks says.
4. Reach for brain food.
A growing body of research on diet and cognitive function, including a recent study published in Advances in Nutrition, argues that three diets — the Mediterranean, the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) — may reduce your risk of cognitive decline.
“It’s what you would eat if you were on vacation on the coast of Italy,” Fredericks says. “A lot of emphasis on fish, lean proteins, beans, other vegetable sources of protein, a rainbow of fruits and vegetables — including especially dark, leafy greens, which seem to have specific benefits for preserving cognitive function.”
Additionally, opt for olive oil instead of butter and spring for whole grains, she continues: “It’s really not a restrictive diet at all, but it’s more a style of eating that seems to be really good for the brain.”
5. Limit drinking.
To lower dementia risk, follow the CDC's guidelines of no more than one drink a day for women and no more than two drinks a day for men.
Of course, abstaining all week doesn’t mean you can safely drink more on weekends. The recommended limits are for cumulative drinks over time and the amount of alcohol in your body in one day.
But someone who already experiences cognitive decline should avoid all alcohol — because “there really is no amount of alcohol that’s been proven safe for someone with cognitive decline,” Fredericks says. “It truly is toxic to the brain.”
6. Address stress.
It’s impossible to avoid all stress, but you can take steps to minimize its damage.
Wendy Troxel, senior behavioral and social scientist at the RAND Corporation and scientific advisor to the Sleep Foundation, suggests doing one of these evidence-based, stress-management techniques daily:
7. Catch plenty of Z’s.
Our brains need at least seven hours of restful sleep nightly to rest and recharge. Preparing ourselves for sleep (read: avoiding screens at least 30 minutes before bed) has the added benefit of keeping our minds sharp.
If you’re stressed, it’s “important to engage in a nightly, relaxing wind-down routine and try to reduce stress levels before bedtime,” says Troxel, author of Sharing the Covers: Every Couple’s Guide to Better Sleep.
She offers these strategies to promote a sense of well-being and calm, in order to prepare for better quality sleep and reduce tension and anxiety:
Take a warm bath.
Cuddle with your partner.
Write down at least three things for which you are grateful in a gratitude journal.
8. Protect your brain.
Sustaining a brain injury, especially one in which you lose consciousness, can increase your risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Therefore, always use a seatbelt and wear a helmet when riding a bike or motorized vehicle, skiing, skating, skateboarding, or playing contact sports like football.
You can also take steps to prevent falls by wearing the right footwear for weather conditions.
9. Consider mental health matters.
Some studies link a history of depression to increased risk of cognitive decline, including a 2013 meta-analysis published in Psychological Medicine. Another study, published recently in Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, found an antidepressant medication called vortioxetine helped to treat both cognitive functioning as well as depression.
Here’s the bottom line: If you have depression, getting treated is important for long-term cognitive health, too.
10. Spend time with younger people.
Another way to socialize and learn new skills is to interact with people from different generations.
In a review published in Ageing Research Reviews in 2019, researchers found that older adults who mingled with younger people showed slower cognitive decline than their peers who only interacted with similarly aged people.
The researchers also found social and emotional benefits of this mingling, such as lower levels of anxiety, depression and loneliness — additional brain-health boosters. In other words, saying “yes” to time with the grandkids is scientifically good for you!