The secret to a brain that's on its A game at all times: staying healthy from head to toe. Habits like keeping blood pressure and cholesterol levels in check, eating a well-balanced diet, and avoiding excess stress make for a mind that functions at its best, says James Mastrianni, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Comprehensive Care and Research on Memory Disorders at the University of Chicago Medicine. Plus, these habits are the brain's best defense against natural memory loss that comes with aging and long-term neurological disorders, like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Follow these do's and don’ts to keep your brain working its hardest now and later on.
If you think you’ve mastered the art of cleaning out your inbox and texting to make Monday Night Football plans—all while catching the company’s quarterly update via teleconference, think again. Multitasking doesn't mean doing two things at the same time—you’re actually quickly alternating back and forth between two tasks, like juggling, says Glenn R. Finney, M.D., F.F.S.N., Division Chief of Behavioral Neurology and co-director of both the Memory Cognitive Disorders Program and Center for Neuropsychological Studies at the University of Florida. To keep your brain sharp, minimize distractions and allow yourself to focus on one task—which actually saves time in the long run.
Writer’s block? Daydreaming in the middle of prepping for a big presentation? Take a hike, go for a quick jog, or visit the weight room if time allows. Brief, strategically placed spurts of exercise increase energy and blood flow to the brain—think a (literal) mini “rush”—allowing you to return to your desk refreshed, and allowing your brain to work at peak performance.
In the long-term, getting regular physical activity—both cardio and strength training—is one of the best ways to keep your brain healthy. The more you keep the body, as well as the mind, engaged and active, the better both will work together, Finney says. Studies suggest regular exercise can improve cognition and improve risk factors for dementia. Current guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate-to-intense aerobic activity each week, including muscle-building activity two days a week.
When your body feels tired from a lack of shut-eye, your brain suffers. It’s not able to concentrate and focus as well as it does when it’s rested, Finney says. Most adults need about eight hours of sleep each night. And if you’re feeling extremely drowsy during the day and can lie down, strategic 10- or 20-minute naps can improve overall focus, Finney adds. But sleeping for longer than 40 minutes during the day isn't a great idea, he says—it could interrupt your nighttime sleep schedule.
The good fats found in fish, as well as some nuts, help keep brain cells healthy and functioning at their peak, which helps the body perform better overall. Studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids, in particular, may improve cardiovascular function—and anything that’s good for the heart is good for the brain, Mastrianni says. Increasing blood flow (i.e. oxygen delivery) to the brain is one of the most important ways to ensure that it functions optimally.
Insufficiencies in certain B vitamins, as well as vitamin D and folic acid, worsen brain function in the short term—and could even mimic signs of dementia, Finney says. Eating a well-balanced diet that includes fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy provides most people the daily allotment of vitamins they need, according to Finney. Ask your M.D. to check your levels if you suspect your diet may not be serving up the right stuff. Or, if you opt for a multivitamin, read the label and look for one with at least 100% of your recommended daily allowance of vitamin E, vitamin D, B-complex vitamins (B-1, B-6, and B-12), and folic acid.
Avoid the solitary work-gym-bed-repeat trap. Return a phone call and make plans. Social interactions stimulate the mind, heighten brain activity, and present new problems for the brain to solve—which is one of the best ways to keep it in shape, Mastrianni explains. In the long run, real-life problem-solving improves memory and helps cognitive functioning even more than word games and memory exercises.
We know—easier said than done. While some stress and anxiety may help motivate you to meet an approaching deadline, taking on too much backfires and prevents the brain from absorbing information as efficiently as it should, Mastrianni says. In the short-term, you’ll feel overwhelmed when these triggers build up. And over time, the long-term effects of stress hormones like cortisol can actually damage and destroy brain cells.