5 of the Smallest Things You Can Do to Keep Your Brain Sharp
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Exercise is critical for preventing cognitive decline and increasing the growth of the hippocampus (the hub that controls emotion and memory), so any opportunities to fit in more walking is key. But the best move for your brain is to move at a faster clip. "The data that is most convincing is when people exercise to the point where they are getting their heart rate up and a little out of breath," says David Wolk, MD, co-director of the Penn Memory Center and an associate professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. Rather than taking a leisurely stroll, each time you head out increase your pace so that you're moving fast enough so that it's tough to hold a conversation, he says.
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It's clear that what's good for your heart is good for your brain. Cardiovascular wellness ensures sufficient blood flow to your brain and also keeps nerves healthy, says Neelum T. Aggarwal, MD, director for research at the Rush Heart Center for Women and associate professor in the departments of neurological sciences and the Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago. All that contributes to strong neural connections. One common thread in the brain-heart connection: social ties. Research shows that loneliness is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke, and is a marker for Alzheimer's. "Loneliness is devastating," she says, adding that it leads to decreased physical activity, unhealthy eating habits, immune dysfunction and depression. On the flip side, "multiple studies show that staying socially and mentally active not only helps with overall brain health but also with the sense of well-being," she says. "Don't underestimate how important being socially connected in positive relationships can be." Reach out to loved ones daily.
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Chronic stress does no favors for your health. Among the myriad ill effects, including worsening cardiovascular risk factors, it also negatively affects your ability to think, focus and remember. While daily stress reduction is important, everyone is different when it comes to what works for them, Aggarwal says. One simple practice: "Simply sitting quietly soon after you wake in the a.m. can do wonders for your concentration later in the day," she says. Aggarwal also recommends trying the Calm app, which can help assist stress relief with its short breathing exercises.
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Building neural connections may be as simple as challenging yourself to try something new. And while learning a new language, playing an instrument or attending a lecture fits the bill, those things take time and commitment. "We're all busy, but find ways to do things that make you think," Wolk says. One option to get your brain firing: cooking new recipes. Find creative, new-to-you ideas via cookbooks, blogs, magazines or Pinterest.
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Both the Mediterranean and MIND diets—which emphasize fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes, whole grains, olive oil and fish—have been shown to reduce the risk of dementia. But revamping your eating habits can be a daunting task. Instead, first focus only on adding color to your plate, Aggarwal says. These are the reds, greens, oranges, yellows, blues and purples of antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies like peppers, leafy greens, figs and blueberries ("Brown, white and beige is not color," she says). Then, before digging in, ask yourself: Is this plate colorful enough?