Fortify Your Brain Health

4 happy older women wearing fitness clothes outdoors

June is Brain Health Awareness Month, an invitation to explore how to fortify your brain health.

Research supports how small, manageable lifestyle changes can be powerful, lasting ways to improve brain health and reduce your risk of developing dementia. It is never too late to start.

The top six things you can do to positively impact brain health are:

  • Regular physical activity
  • Eating healthy
  • Managing stress
  • Getting a good night’s sleep
  • Challenging your mind
  • Staying socially engaged

You have likely adopted many of these healthy lifestyle habits already. Congratulations and keep up the good work! Any change you make to positively impact brain health will also benefit your physical, emotional, mental, and cognitive health. And who doesn’t want to feel better?

Move your body

Regular physical activity reaps a bounty of benefits:

  • Enhances cognition
  • Strengthens your heart and other muscles
  • Decreases stress and enhances mood
  • Improves balance
  • Aids in weight management
  • Supports independence
  • Helps you sleep better

If exercising is new to you, start slowly with a safe and comfortable pace of ten (10) minutes at a time, building up to 30–45 minutes, five (5) times a week.

Exercise comes in many forms. Find what appeals to you: a brisk walk, tai chi, swimming, hiking, bicycling, yoga, dancing! For physical activity guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), click here.

Healthy eating

The Mediterranean and DASH diets have each been touted for years for their brain nutrition. The Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet is a hybrid of both healthy-eating programs, focused on food groups in each that boost brain power, preserve brain function, and aid in protecting the brain from cognitive decline and dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.

The Do’s of the MIND Diet

Emphasis is on leafy greens, berries, nuts (specifically those high in omega 3), fish, and a daily vegetable or two in addition to the leafy greens. The MIND diet is high in nutrients and easy to follow. Check your area’s farmers market for fresh, local fruits and vegetables.

  • 3 servings of whole grains daily
  • 1+ other vegetable daily
  • 6+ leafy greens a week
  • 5+ servings a week of nuts for snacks (not chips!)
  • 4+ servings a week of beans/legumes
  • Berries (especially blue!) at least 2 times a week
  • Poultry (e.g., chicken or turkey) 2 times a week
  • Fish 1 or more times per week
  • An occasional glass of wine
  • Mainly olive oil, if added fat is used

The Don’ts (or occasional)

Aim to limit your consumption of these foods:

  • Butter or margarine: try to eat less than one tablespoon per day
  • Whole fat cheese: aim for only one ounce or less, twice a week
  • Red meat: goal is no more than three servings per week
  • Fried food: discouraged, especially from fast-food restaurants—limit to once every other week
  • Sweets and pastries: aim for five or fewer per week

Get your zzz’s

Sleep facilitates repair of your body, especially the brain. A good night’s sleep helps you feel alert, think clearly, reduce stress, and improve mood and immune system. According to Mayo Clinic, “Some theories state that sleep helps clear abnormal proteins in your brain and consolidates memories, which boosts your overall memory and brain health.”

  • Keep a regular sleep schedule. Strive to get up at the same time every day.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco, especially at night.
  • Keep naps short, 45–60 minutes at most.
  • If you can’t get to sleep after more than 10–20 minutes, get up and do something quiet. Don’t lie awake.
  • Don’t use electronic screens before bed or keep them near your bed.

Challenge yourself mentally

Your brain needs exercise, too. There are many ways to keep your brain in shape. Sudoku, crossword, other word puzzles, reading, playing cards or board games, or putting together a jigsaw puzzle—these all count.

Incorporate different types of activities to increase the effectiveness of brain fitness. Learn something new, such as how to play an instrument, converse in a new language, paint with watercolor, write with calligraphy, grow a container garden, or dance the salsa. By learning and practicing new skills, you are building new connections and pathways in your brain. Get curious!

Monitor your TV viewing. It is a passive activity and does little to stimulate your brain (though watching Jeopardy! may be good for you).

Stay socially engaged

Your brain benefits from being social. Join friends for coffee regularly. Say “yes!” to a cookout with your neighbors. Take advantage of community meals at your area senior or community center. Participate in a book club at your local library. Join a walking group and get double the benefit—exercise AND social interaction.

Social engagement is shown to help prevent depression and manage stress. Look for opportunities to connect with your community, especially if you live alone. Keeping socially active helps strengthen the grey matter!

Keri PollockContributor Keri Pollock directs marketing and communications for Aging Wisdom, a care management and creative engagement practice based in Seattle. She is a member of the Age Friendly Coalition for Seattle and King County and serves on the Phinney Neighborhood Association (PNA) Board.

This article appeared in the June 2024 issue of AgeWise King County.