3 Key (and Free) Activities that Boost Brain Health
Lifestyle choices play a significant role in improving how the brain works.
Posted Dec 10, 2019
As a clinical neuropsychologist and brain health coach and consultant, I consider various evidence-based strategies that maximize how the brain works. In my new blog, I will be discussing what we know about the science of brain health—basically, what research says is best for our brains, beyond the marketing hype associated with questionable products—and how to apply this research to your life in straightforward yet powerful ways. My goal is to help readers separate the wheat from the chaff, and learn what helps the brain thrive.
Let’s start with a cluster of three critically important activities for the brain that I like to call the “activity triad.” The first is physical activity. Simply put, exercising on a regular basis has impressive effects on brain functioning. We know that individuals who engage in moderate activity at least 20-30 minutes per day tend to have better cognitive abilities like attention, memory, and executive functioning. Exercise helps us grow and fortifies brain cells in regions like the hippocampus and frontal lobe—areas that govern how we learn, remember, and process information.
In addition, people who are more physically fit experience less brain inflammation, which, in turn, may be associated with improved neuroplasticity. There’s also compelling evidence that working out on a regular basis significantly reduces your risk of dementia. And if you’re starting an exercise routine in midlife after being sedentary earlier in life, you’ll still reap the rewards: Fitness levels at midlife are linked to better brain health 20+ years down the road.
The second part of the activity triad is social activity and engagement. We are inherently social creatures, and social activity helps us feel connected to others and reduces stress. Did you know that having a larger social network and feeling more socially supported helps the brain work better? People who socialize more often have stronger cognitive skills and are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those who are less socially engaged.
Rounding out the activity triad is mental and intellectual activity. Mental stimulation comes from many sources; some examples include reading, doing crossword puzzles, playing a musical instrument, and working at a demanding job. The bottom line is that the more mentally engaged you are, the more likely you will maintain your brain health into your 50s, 60s, and beyond.
People who stay mentally active have been found to have better memory, mental flexibility, and cognitive processing speed, and have a significantly lower risk of developing dementia. Increasing your daily “dose” of mental activity is also a great idea; people who are most intellectually engaged tend to have the best brain health.
In future blog posts, we’ll be doing a deeper dive into these topics (and introducing others), but ramping up physical, social, and intellectual activities is a great way to stay on track when building brain-healthy habits into your life.
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de Souto Barreto et al. (2016). Physical activity and cognitive function in middle-aged and older adults: An analysis of 104,909 people from 20 countries. Mayo Clin Proc, 91, 1515-1524.
Fratiglioni, L. et al. (2004). An active and socially integrated lifestyle in late life might protect against dementia. Lancet, 3, 343-353.
Horder, H. et al. (2018). Midlife cardiovascular fitness and dementia: A 44-year longitudinal population study in women. Neurology, 90, e1298-e1305.
Hwang, J. et al. (2017). The positive cognitive impact of aerobic fitness is associated with peripheral inflammatory and brain-derived neurotrophic biomarkers in young adults. Physiology and Behavior, 179, 75-89.
Jonasson, L.S. et al. (2017). Aerobic exercise intervention, cognitive performance, and brain structure: Results from the Physical Influences on Brain in Aging (PHIBRA) study. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 8, 336.
Vidoni, E.D. et al. (2015). Dose-response of aerobic exercise on cognition: A community-based, pilot randomized controlled trial. PLOS ONE, 10, e0131647.
Yates, L.A. et al. (2016). Cognitive leisure activities and future risk of cognitive impairment and dementia: Systematic review and meta-analysis. International Psychogeriatrics, 28, 1791-1806.