Boost your brainpower and keep your mind in check with our definitive round-up of research-led tips.
The brain is a truly remarkable organ. By your second birthday it will be 80% developed, yet isn’t fully formed until you hit 25. Despite making up only 2% of your body, it consumes one fifth of its oxygen supply. It can transport information at almost 300 mph, generating more than 60,000 thoughts per day.
Then, shortly after you turn 40, it naturally starts to shrink 1-2% per year. You can, however, arrest this terminal decline. Here we’ve rounded up half a century of research-backed strategies to keep your mind healthy long into old age.
1) Floss. People with poor dental hygiene, leading to inflammation-associated periodontal disease, are 21% more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease (although available evidence is still limited).
2) Double down on gum disease by brushing your teeth twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste, for at least two minutes.
3) Watch a funny film. A 2020 study on university students found that laughing regularly helps moderate the symptoms of stress following fretful events.
4) Finish your greens. Just one daily serving of leafy green vegetables like spinach, kale and watercress can slow cognitive decline.
5) Follow the MIND diet. Shorthand for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, it includes at least six servings per week of leafy green veg, two of berries, one of fish, three of beans, five of nuts and, pleasingly, one of wine. Chin-chin.
6) Don’t binge drink. A 2022 study published in Nature, found just one pint of beer or glass of wine per day can shrink the brain, with the damage rising with every additional daily drink. Knocking back four units of booze per day (two pints or 175ml glasses of wine) aged the brain by more than a decade.
7) Get your steps in. “Walking just 10 minutes per day has been shown to reverse the natural brain shrinking effect of ageing by 1-2 years,” says psychologist Kimberley Wilson, author of How to Build a Healthy Brain.
8) Ride your bike. Just 30 minutes of daily aerobic exercise boosts brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes the growth of new brain cells and supports the survival of existing ones, by as much as 30%. “It's the closest thing we have to the fountain of eternal youth,” Wilson says.
9) Regular aerobic exercise has also been shown to increase the volume of the brain’s hippocampus, a brain region responsible for memory and learning.
10) Just remember your helmet. Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is, understandably, directly associated with an increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
11) Mind your head – especially in your twilight years. The same 2014 study found those suffering even a mild TBI at 65 years or older had an especially elevated risk of dementia.
13) Deep sleep is essential for memory consolidation – aim for seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep each night.
14) If your body is digesting, it won’t be resting. Finish your last meal of the day at least three hours before bed.
15) Use a room thermometer to keep your bedroom cool and mind at rest. Wilson recommends maintaining a temperature of around 20˚C.
16) Get outside. At least 30 minutes of natural light in the morning or at lunchtime helps “anchor your circadian rhythm,” says Wilson, helping promote brain-nourishing sleep.
17) Go analogue. Read a book or magazine before bed and avoid electronic devices.
18) Practise your handwriting. Research on children suggests writing by hand engages more areas of the brain than typing, helping support language development.
19) Keep a “worry book” beside your bed. “People with insomnia are 17 times more likely to experience anxiety than average sleepers,” says Wilson. Write down any last minute thoughts that crop up before you switch off the lights. “It’ll help declutter your mind of toxic metabolites and proteins.”
20) Never stop learning. Sustained cognitive tasks, such as studying a new language, encourages the brain to adapt and change in response to experience, known as neuroplasticity.
21) Picking up a new instrument has a similar effect. Jessica Grahn, a cognitive scientist at Western University in London, Ontario has claimed that a year of piano lessons and regular practice can increase IQ by as much as three points.
22) Better still, learning to dance can challenge your brain and body in unison.
23) On a similar theme, Neuroplasticity author Moheb Costandi has dismissed the effectiveness of brain training games and apps. Time to swap Wordle for Duolingo.
24) That said, one decade-long study published in 2014 found reasoning and speed – but not memory – training for people in their 70s resulted in improved cognitive abilities.
25) Ditch the Sat Nav. In his research, Costandi also found that London cab drivers boosted their grey matter after rigorous training in the city’s labyrinthine streets.
26) Brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand. While the evidence is contested, teaching yourself to become ambidextrous in everyday tasks could elicit this neuroplasticity response too.
27) The “Mozart effect” for boosting brain power has been similarly debunked over the years, but a 2006 study on more than 8,000 children suggested that listening to anything that prompts cognitive arousal and alertness can improve your ability to solve spatial puzzles.
28) Add flaxseed to your weekly menu. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like flaxseed, help preserve brain health and enhance cognition in middle age. Researchers theorise this is due to their anti-inflammatory properties and role in providing the membrane for neurons.
29) A quarter of the brain is built from the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The next most essential nutrient for brain health is choline. “If DHA is one of the building blocks of brain cells, then choline is the mortar,” Wilson writes in her latest book, Unprocessed - How the Food We Eat is Fuelling Our Mental Health Crisis. Eggs, salmon and chicken are the best sources. Flaxseed, pistachios and edamame are the next best vegan options.
30) When faced with the dilemma of white or dark chocolate, always go dark. A 2020 study using commercially available confectionery found this choice led to noticeably better verbal memory performance, possibly due to the higher concentration of cocoa flavonoids leading to increased cerebral blood flow.
31) Consuming at least five servings of nuts per week has been linked to better long-term cognitive function. Best to opt for the unsalted and unroasted variety.
32) Get back in the classroom. Evidence suggests those who’ve gone through higher education have a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
33) Keeping socially active in later life has also shown to protect against early-onset dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
34) Practise alternative nasal breathing. Better known in yoga circles as Sanskrit as nadi shodhana pranayama, it helps harness the left and right hemispheres of the brain. For work that requires careful organisation, block the left nostril so you only inhale and exhale through your right nasal passage, advises Craig Seaton, Breathwork Facilitator at fitness studio BLOK.
35) For more creative assignments, block the right nostril and only breathe through your left nasal passage. “Four minutes is all you need to switch your mind onto the task at hand,” says Seaton.
36) Another basic variation is to breathe in through one nostril and out the other, then reverse the direction. “Because we predominantly breathe more through one nostril than the other, this exercise helps redress the balance so you find calm and clarity,” Seaton adds. Try this for a couple of minutes before bed to “clean lingering residue from your mind”.
37) Deep, diaphragmatic breathing has similarly been shown to significantly boost working memory and cognitive flexibility.
38) Practice mindfulness 10-15 minutes per day. A 2007 study showed it can improve levels of attention and sensory processing, while reducing brain-sapping stress levels.
39) Fasting has shown some promise in boosting BDNF levels and upregulating the production of the hunger hormone ghrelin, increasing neurogenesis in the hippocampus. “Occasional, short periods (12-24 hours) of reduced caloric intake may confer some brain and mood benefits,” says Wilson.
40) For women, whose menstrual cycles can be derailed by intermittent fasting, Wilson suggests consuming all daily meals within a 10-12 hour window.
41) Set yourself (and your kids) screen time limits. A 2015 study found just nine minutes’ viewing of a fast-paced television cartoon had an immediate negative impact on young children’s executive function – skills that enable us to plan, focus, remember instructions and multitask.
42) Keep your smartphone out of sight and reach when deadlines are looming. It will improve your working memory and fluid intelligence by freeing up your brain’s finite processing power.
43) Enjoy at least one “phone-free” journey per week, adds Wilson, pointing to similar benefits for attention.
44) Join a book club. Studies suggest reading literature can improve general concentration, memory, social skills, creativity and confidence, while buffering against feelings of isolation and depression.
45) Hit the sauna. Twenty minutes in a dry sauna 1-2 times per week has been linked with increased BDNF, endorphin release, reduced inflammation and lower cortisol. “Increasing your core temperature by just 1-2 degrees can help recycle toxic proteins and stimulate new cell growth in the brain,” says Wilson.
46) Alternatively, run a bath. A warm soak in a tub around 42˚C also works.
47) Maintain a healthy weight. A 2005 study found that midlife obesity (defined as a body mass index over 30) was linked with an increased risk of dementia. Not to mention diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
48) Other chronic conditions, such as hypertension and high cholesterol, have also been shown to negatively impact brain function.
49) Keep a level head. Chronic stress and associated high cortisol levels can impair memory and even inflict hippocampal damage.
Words: Sam Rider
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