By Angela Timashenka Geiger, Chief Strategy Officer, Alzheimer’s Association
Special to Everyday Health
The brain is your body’s control and command center. Its power is complex, vast, and awe-inspiring — which means the idea of taking care of it can be intimidating.
Recent surveys suggest that an overwhelming majority of people realize they can reduce their risk of cognitive decline. What they don’t know is what to do and where to start.
The potential to lower your risk of cognitive decline lies in many of the same healthy habits that are also good for your health in general. The Alzheimer’s Association released these 10 Ways to Love Your Brain in honor of Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month:
1. Break a Sweat
Exercise isn’t just about looking good for swimsuit season. Several studies have found anassociation between physical activity and reduced risk of cognitive decline. Engage in regular cardiovascular exercise that elevates your heart rate and increases blood flow to the brain and body.
2. Hit the Books
Some of the strongest evidence for reducing risk of dementia revolves around years of formal education — and this doesn’t mean getting an Ivy League degree. It can be as simple as taking a class at a local college or community center or online. Formal education in any stage of life will help reduce your risk of cognitive decline and dementia.
3. Butt Out
The reasons to quit smoking are endless, but you can add that it may help reduce your risk of cognitive decline. Quitting smoking can reduce risk to levels comparable to those for people who have not smoked.
4. Follow Your Heart
You know it’s good for your body, but did you also know it can be good for your brain? Evidence shows risk factors for cardiovascular disease and stroke – obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes — negatively impact your brain and cognitive health. Take care of your heart, and your brain just might follow.
5. Heads Up!
Another evidence-based tip for reducing your risk of cognitive decline: Avoid head injuries. A brain injury can raise your risk of cognitive decline and dementia, so wear a seat belt, use a helmet when playing contact sports or riding a bike, and take steps to prevent falls.
6. Fuel Up Right
Recent surveys suggest more than two out of three people said you can reduce your risk of cognitive decline by eating one or two of the right “superfoods” — a misconception, since there is no research showing that individual foods make a difference. What we do know: Eating a healthy and balanced diet that has more vegetables and fruits can help reduce the risk of cognitive decline. Although research on diet and cognitive function is limited, certain diets, includingMediterranean and Mediterranean-DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), may contribute to risk reduction.
7. Catch Some Zzzs
You know the feeling: When you don’t get enough sleep, you just feel “off,” and you’re not functioning at full capacity. There are long-term risks as well: Not getting enough sleep due to conditions like insomnia or sleep apnea may result in problems with memory and thinking.
8. Take Care of Your Mental Health
Some studies link a history of depression with increased risk of cognitive decline, so seek medical treatment if you have symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other mental health concerns. Also, try to manage stress.
9. Buddy Up
Those lunch dates with your friends are fun, but they may have a more positive effect than you thought. Staying socially engaged may support brain health, so pursue social activities that are meaningful to you. Find ways to be part of your local community — if you love animals, consider volunteering at a local shelter. If you enjoy singing, join a local choir or help at an after-school program. Or simply share activities with friends and family.
10. Stump Yourself
Six out of 10 respondents in a recent survey thought that the right puzzle, game, or app could reduce their risk of cognitive decline. But helping to keep your brain healthy goes beyond any single tool. Challenging yourself to think in new ways may have short and long-term benefits for your brain. Complete a jigsaw puzzle, do something artistic, or build a piece of furniture. Play games, such as bridge, that make you think strategically.
All of these tips add up to a big boost for your brain. Research has suggested that combining good nutrition with mental, social, and physical activities may have a greater benefit in maintaining or improving brain health than any single activity.
Angela Geiger is the chief strategy officer for the Alzheimer’s Association. Her accomplishments include developing and launching the organization’s first-ever integrated consumer education campaign to raise concern about Alzheimer’s disease as a critical public health issue. She has a variety of conferences and publications, including The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Takes on Alzheimer’s and Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer’s & Other Dementias. The Alzheimer’s Association is the world’s leading voluntary health organization in Alzheimer’s care, support and research. The association’s mission is to eliminate Alzheimer’s disease through the advancement of research; to provide and enhance care and support for all affected; and to reduce the risk of dementia through the promotion of brain health.