As crucial as our brains are to our ability to function, they don’t get nearly the attention that certain muscle groups (or even wrinkles) do. Unless we’re dealing with a serious condition, most of us don’t experience symptoms of cognitive decline until after midlife.
But brain care is self-care. Just like you brush your teeth to avoid a root canal and wear sunscreen to protect your skin, giving your noggin the TLC it deserves sooner rather than later is the best way to keep it functioning at its peak.
“It’s going to help your heart, protect you from other diseases, make you more connected to other people and more upbeat,” Dr. Gary Small, a geriatric psychiatrist, professor at the University of California, Los Angeles and author of “The Memory Bible,” told HuffPost. “You’re going to live longer and better. Who doesn’t want that?”
Whether you’re in your 20s or 60s, here are five expert-backed habits you can adopt to give your brain a leg-up:
Taking Walks With A Friend
Consistent physical exercise is one of the best things you can do for your brain health. But you don’t have to be a triathlete to reap the benefits. Research has shown that older adults who frequently engaged in “leisure walking” were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those who didn’t.
While getting your steps in can help keep your mind sharp, Smalls has a hack for getting even more cognitive juice out of your strolls: Invite a friend.
“The triple threat against Alzheimer’s disease is to take a walk with a friend. You get the aerobic exercise that’s going to help your brain, the mental stimulation of a conversation, and ― if [your friend] is empathic ― you can talk about anything that’s bothering you.”
That combination of physical exercise, social connection and stress reduction is a potent brain-booster. Whether you set a weekly walk date with a friend or call loved ones every time you hit the pavement, your brain will thank you for the company.
Meditating For 10 Minutes
Stress is the enemy of healthy brain functioning. Science has long determined that exposure to chronic stress can damage the hippocampus and impair our memory. Since life isn’t getting any less stressful anytime soon, Smalls said a good tool to combat anxiety and worry is a regular meditation practice.
“My team at UCLA did studies where they found that just 10 minutes of meditation not only improved your mood but improved your cognitive function,” he explained. “You don’t have to take a vow of silence for a month at some retreat. Just a little bit of meditation each day can make a big difference.”
The style or method of meditation doesn’t matter as much as your consistency. Find something you like ― guided visualizations, mantra chanting, simple breathing exercises ― and make actively reducing stress a part of your daily routine.
Being a cynic isn’t just bad for your mood. It’s bad for your brain, too. Studies indicate that repetitive negative thinking is a potential marker for an increased risk of dementia and cognitive decline. Training yourself to find the silver lining by practicing gratitude can be a powerful antidote, but shifting your mindset isn’t easy. Pairing this habit with another brain-friendly practice, like writing by hand, can be a powerful one-two punch.
Jessica Fredericksen, the brain health program manager at the not-for-profit senior living and health care organization Goodwin Living, told HuffPost that writing by hand works the prefrontal cortex ― the part of the brain responsible for memory and recall. Repetitive exercises like reading aloud, simple math and writing by hand keep that part of your brain sharp.
Not a fan of journaling? Try writing letters to loved ones as another way to work your brain by combining the power of penmanship with social engagement.
“We don’t really write letters anymore,” Fredericksen said. “But a lot of people love getting mail. You obviously have that brain health activity of physically writing, but you also get that socialization and stress reduction. It’s really a positive thing to write to someone and connect.”
Keeping A Consistent Bedtime
Sleep plays a crucial role in how well our brains function. Dr. Daniel Rifkin, medical director of the Sleep Medicine Centers of Western New York and founder of the virtual sleep care network Ognomy, explained that while we’re drifting off to dreamland, our brains are hard at work consolidating memories and clearing toxins that build up when we’re awake.
“Our bodies have a lymphatic system that clears all the yucky stuff, but the brain doesn’t have that. It has sinuses where blood and cerebrospinal fluid flow through. [Researchers] discovered that when we sleep, there are certain brain cells that will shrink and swell to allow that cerebrospinal fluid to drain more easily and clear all the junk that we left in our brains during the day.”
This discovery has led Rifkin and other researchers to believe that the link between sleep deprivation and Alzheimer’s disease has a lot to do with not giving your brain enough time to clear out those toxins. Even getting just one hour less of the recommended amount of sleep every night increases your risk of dementia.
The best way to combat sleep deprivation? Keep a consistent bedtime that allows for at least seven hours of sleep.
Picking Up A New Team Sport
Learning is another key piece to healthy brain functioning. But picking up a new language or skill isn’t the only way to get the job done. If you really want to keep your brain on its toes, Frederickson recommends any social hobby that has a physical component. Whether it’s joining a yoga studio, taking a ballroom dancing course or playing pickup basketball with your friends, any activity that combines physicality, learning and social engagement is a guaranteed brain-booster.
“You’re learning something new, you’re getting physical exercise and you’re meeting new people,” she said. “We have some seniors who do senior parkour, so the possibilities are really endless.”
Humans are social creatures by nature, and research continues to back up the idea that relationships are good for our brains. One study found that meaningful social engagement with friends, family members and even strangers can reduce the loss of gray matter (the brain tissue responsible for normal day-to-day functioning) and associated cognitive decline.
So if you’re limited in what you can do physically, Frederickson said to opt for any hobby that combines learning and social interaction. Playing bridge and mah-jongg, for example, can be just as stimulating for the mind as joining a kickball team.
Improving your brain health doesn’t have to mean overhauling your life. The most important part is finding activities that you genuinely enjoy and can stick with. Integrating a few brain-friendly habits can make all the difference in how well your brain operates today, tomorrow and years down the road.