Give Your Brain a Boost

Refuel your think tank (see what we did there?) with these simple get-sharp/stay-sharp tips.

brain boost via crossword puzzle

Photo by Johnny Miller

Photo by Johnny Miller

Build a social network 

“We tap into lots of different areas of the brain when we socialize and form bonds with people,” says Fiona Gupta, MD, a neurologist at Mount Sinai in New York City. In fact, a University of Michigan study found that social interactions may be just as stimulating as crossword puzzles and other thinking games. Plus, surrounding yourself with a diverse circle of friends can challenge you to see things from different perspectives. It’s important to note, though, that in-person meetups provide more benefits than online socializing. “When you’re face-to-face, you have to think quickly, make eye contact and produce engaging conversation,” says Gupta. “That challenges your brain more.”

Get lost

If you can’t make it to your twice-a-year dental cleaning without relying on GPS, it’s definitely time to challenge your memory. “A growing body of evidence suggests that our navigational sense is tightly connected to memory,” says Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. “Some scientists even think our dependence on technology to get around increases the risk of memory loss and dementia as we age.” Carr recommends using tech less and tapping brain reserves more. Do your brain a solid by using a real map on occasion, taking different routes to get to everyday locations and really understanding the route you’re taking instead of just obeying the lady in the GPS box.

Kick up your workout 

Some exercise is always going to be better than no exercise. But what’s best for your brain? Workouts that involve strikes, blocks and throws (think mixed martial arts and kickboxing) improve brain health more than walking or other types of physical activity, according to a 2017 study in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport. “When you’re doing tai chi, tae kwon do or similar martial arts, you have to concentrate on the moves and what’s coming next,” explains John Ratey, MD, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. “By simultaneously engaging your muscles and brain with these workouts, you grow and preserve brain cells.”

RELATED: 

Back up your memory 

You download a movie only to discover you’ve already seen it. You can’t recall the name of your daughter’s volleyball coach whom you met 15 minutes ago. It’s not that you can’t remember things; it’s that your brain needs help accessing the information, says Henry Roediger, PhD, a psychology professor who oversees the Memory Lab at Washington University in St. Louis. Making the memory more robust makes it easier to access. “One of the most effective ways to memorize information is to force yourself to recall it over and over again soon after an experience,” says Roediger. Describe your daughter’s coach to your spouse and make the info stick by mentioning key details, such as hair color, several times along with the coach’s name.

Sleep on it

You might want to reconsider staying up to finish a work project or do one more load of laundry. A recent study suggests that quality slumber during your 40s and 50s may guard against developing age-related memory problems. That’s because your brain needs to reach a state of deep sleep to consolidate or store information for retrieval later on. “Both sleep quantity and quality affect brain function,” says sleep expert Michael Breus, PhD, author of The Power of  When. Improving sleep habits now—sticking to a regular bedtime, making your bedroom an
electronics-free zone and keeping the room a cool, dark sanctuary—may eventually pay off big-time.

Stress less: Higher levels of cortisol (a hormone tied to stress) have been linked to poorer memory skills.

Go blue

cabbage

Photo by Johnny Miller

Photo by Johnny Miller

Blueberries and other bluish produce, like eggplants, purple grapes and red cabbage, are rich in brain-protective micronutrients called polyphenols, says Martha Clare Morris, ScD, a nutritional epidemiologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Blueberries are also the only fruit specifically included in the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet developed by Morris and her colleagues, which may lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by up to 53% when followed consistently. You’ll want to aim for half a cup of fresh blueberries at least twice a week, along with other brain-healthy foods included in the diet, like leafy green vegetables, nuts, beans, fish, olive oil—and even red wine!

Shake things up

Learning a skill, such as photography, a musical instrument or a new language, improves memory by strengthening networks in the brain, according to a Psychological Science study. “Doing novel things helps grow new connections between brain cells, which may bolster memory and decrease or delay problems like Alzheimer’s disease,” says Michelle Braun, PhD, a Yale- and Harvard-trained neuropsychologist and brain health expert. If you’re not quite ready to find a new hobby, try a few simple, everyday tricks to push yourself, like using a mouse with your nondominant hand or making a complicated recipe.