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Boost your brain health with these 6 expert tips

How we live, eat and handle stress can influence how our brain works as we age, according to experts from Ohio State and other notable groups.

A senior couple prepares a healthy meal with a variety of vegetables and fruits in view

(Photo from Getty Images)

“The brain is wider than the sky,” wrote poet Emily Dickinson, and she was right to marvel at our seemingly limitless capacity to absorb, retain and process information. By living a healthy lifestyle, we can greatly improve our odds of having that great brain functioning throughout our lives.  

As we age, we may experience cognitive decline, or a slowing down or change in our ability to think. Dementia, on the other hand, is an impaired ability to remember, think or make decisions that interferes with doing everyday activities; it is not a normal part of aging. But the good news is we can adopt lifestyle habits that slow cognitive decline as well as protect your brain from dementia.  

Here are some tips for great brain health: 

Maintain a healthy blood pressure 

Kathy Wright is a nurse scientist at Ohio State whose goal is “saving brains, one blood pressure at a time.”  

“By keeping our blood pressure under control — ideally less than 120/80 — we could reduce our risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 30%,” Wright says. (Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia.) “Blood pressure, which is a part of our cardiovascular system, and the brain are connected … What we think, feel and eat can increase our blood pressure,” which can in turn increase risk for Alzheimer’s disease and stroke.  

Make sure you know your numbers, regardless of your age — have your blood pressure checked soon and regularly. If you are on medication for blood pressure, make sure to take it regularly. 

Invest in your wellness 

While our genetic background plays a part in our health and wellness, 80% of chronic disease could be eliminated by having a healthy lifestyle (eating right, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding smoking, exercising regularly, getting adequate sleep and addressing stress), Wright points out.  

“By making simple changes, such as reducing your sodium intake to 1500 milligrams a day, you could reduce your blood pressure by 10 points,” she says. 

Take time to list what you could do to improve your overall wellness and make a plan to make one small change starting today. 

Exercise your mind 

Continuing to learn and exercise your mind also promotes the health of that wonderful organ, your brain.  

Protect your head 

Here’s one more reason to fasten your seatbelt or wear a bike helmet: Protecting your head helps protect your brain from traumatic injuries or concussions that could lead to long-term cognitive problems.  

Female athletes should especially be aware of the risk of concussion. Studies by the National Institutes of Health show they are more susceptible to sports-related concussions than men and may have more severe symptoms afterward. It’s important for women to know the signs of concussion, how to seek concussion care and what to do to avoid injury. 

Reduce stress  

Chronic stress can adversely affect the brain. When stressed, the body releases cortisol, which can affect the function and structure of the brain, as well as impair memory. It is important to manage stress daily with healthy coping strategies, such as deep abdominal breathing, mindfulness and cognitive-behavioral skills building.  

Eat right 

Eating healthier foods can decrease your risk of cognitive decline, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. What foods are healthy for your brain? Liz Weinandy ’97, ’02 MPH, registered dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, recommends the MIND diet. 

The MIND diet combines aspects of the DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet, both of which curb hypertension, and emphasizes foods to include or avoid for brain health. The mainstays of the diet are berries, beans, fish, nuts, olive oil, dark green leafy vegetables and lean poultry. These foods have an anti-inflammatory effect and have been associated with improved brain function and slower cognitive decline. 

The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research recommends learning what kinds of fats are in your food. Some unsaturated fats are good and necessary for brain health. They can be found in olive or canola oil, nuts, seeds and fish. Omega-3 fats (found in foods like fish and chia seeds) are especially good for brain health. Avoid added sugars and try to add more vegetables to your diet. 

Good news: Dark chocolate (in moderate amounts) is good for your brain! Evidence shows that cocoa flavonoids can acutely improve cognitive function and blood flow to the brain. Because of its highest flavanol count, choose dark chocolate. 

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