It is a common cultural perception that decreased cognitive abilities come in tandem with increased age. Yet, neuroscience tells a different story. Brain research in the field of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change and adapt in response to new stimuli, demonstrates that memory, learning, productivity, and intelligence are adjustable factors rather than fixed points.
The following practices capitalize on the brain’s malleable nature. Regularly integrating these tools can increase memory, heighten awareness, accelerate learning, and keep your mind sharp throughout life.
Mind What (and When) You Eat
Good nutrition benefits your brain as well as your body. Researchers have found ample evidence that healthy fats, fruits, and vegetables protect the brain from the oxidative stress and vascular impairment that are associated with age-related cognitive decline. The Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets, both of which limit sugar and saturated fat while encouraging consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, whole grains, and fish, have been found to promote healthy aging. When planning your meals, make a point to include specific foods that have brain nourishing phytonutrients such as avocados, blueberries, broccoli, eggs, green leafy vegetables, wild caught salmon, turmeric, walnuts, and dark chocolate. At the same time, minimize packaged, processed, sugary, and fried foods.
In addition to what you eat, when you eat plays an important role in cognitive health. Regular fasting has been shown to minimize risk factors associated with neurological decline. The benefits of fasting derive from a process known as autophagy in which the body cleans out damaged cells and replaces them with healthy ones. Autophagy can be stimulated by eating all of your food during an 8 to 12 hour window each day. For enhanced benefits, fasts of up to 24 hours can be undertaken by healthy individuals once a month.
Incorporate Aerobic Exercise
Aging causes the part of your brain responsible for memory and learning, known as the hippocampus, to shrink. Fortunately, research has demonstrated that aerobic exercise increases the size of the hippocampus. One study also discovered that six months of aerobic exercise increased white brain matter. Axons that transmit neurological signals are housed in the white brain matter. Taken together, these studies indicate that aerobic exercise can enhance retention, up-regulate recall, and facilitate learning.
Aim to engage in 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day. A pedometer or smart watch can be a helpful tool in tracking activity. By striving for approximately 10,000 daily steps you can protect your brain from age-related decline while simultaneously lowering blood pressure, enhancing cholesterol profile, and increasing optimism. Walking directly on the Earth can provide the added benefits of balancing the charge of your body’s cells.. In addition to a daily hike, integrate small bouts of aerobic activity whenever feasible: park in the farthest parking spot from your destination, play chase with the dog, or take the stairs instead of the elevator. Movement equates to youthfulness so do your best to keep your body in motion.
Build Social Networks
Cultivating friendships is good for your brain. A 2018 longitudinal study published in Scientific Reports found that social engagement significantly reduced older adult’s risk of dementia. Social connections present opportunities for heightened mental stimulation and new experiences, both of which increase synaptic density. Research findings suggest that diversity of friendships is as important as quantity. Maintaining positive relationships with children, friends, relatives, and neighbors allows older adults to draw from different resources in order to meet their social, health, and spiritual needs.
New connections can be established through shared interest groups, volunteer events, and community based organizations. Consider enrolling in a class, joining a book club, or attending a lecture series. Forging connections may require stepping out of your comfort zone but ultimately those relationships will bring greater health and joy into your life.
Learn Something New
The old adage “use it or lose it” could rightly be applied to the aging brain. Neural synaptic connections are pruned beginning in the late twenties. In the thirties and forties, neural electrical activity slows and the myelin sheath which protects brain cells begins to degrade. Learning new skills puts the breaks on the entire pruning, slowing, and atrophying process. Like any exercise, learning stimulates growth.
Visiting novel places, developing new skills, taking up an instrument, learning a game, staying up to date with technology, expressing an artistic talent, or attending a play can all halt age-related decline. The important thing is to stay engaged with new experiences and activities. Once experiences become routine, the brain benefits diminish. The key is to stay on the pulse of learning in order to keep the brain youthful.
Cognitive decline is not well correlated to physical age. The years after age fifty can actually be the most mentally stimulating and emotionally rewarding of your life. The key is to enjoy an active lifestyle, eat healthily, reignite curiosity, and remain open to all that life has to offer you. By staying receptive to new foods, unique people, novel places, and creative viewpoints your brain will remain alert, imaginative, and full of vigor throughout life.