Although she always stayed active, it wasn’t until she hit 50 that Jackie Kovacs, an Aurora, Ontario, magazine editor with Metroland Media, made an extra effort to get to the gym. And it wasn’t just for her biceps. “I’d like my brain to stay functioning as long as possible, and I believe getting the blood flowing contributes to brain health,” says Kovacs. To the same end, she also takes a few supplements, including omega-3 capsules, and is trying to get more sleep.
Her efforts should pay off. While it’s difficult to reverse cognitive problems once they’ve begun, medical evidence suggests there are many things we can do right now to delay or even prevent age-related brain decline and dementia. Luckily, most of them help the body as well. Some are even fun.
Being physically active is the single most powerful thing you can do to keep your brain healthy.
Being physically active is the single most powerful thing you can do to keep your brain healthy, says Louis Bherer, a neuropsychologist, researcher and professor in the University of Montreal’s department of medicine. If you haven’t been working out your entire life, don’t worry, it’s not too late to start.
Studies show that when sedentary older adults begin working out, their executive function (including the ability to make quick decisions) improves, and the hippocampus (a brain structure that plays a crucial role in memory) increases in volume. That’s the opposite of what tends to happen with age.
Ideally, combine strength training and aerobic exercise – and any amount is better than none. “Some studies show that even twice a week makes a big difference,” adds Bherer.
Tax the mind
More good news for Kovacs: Her job involves flexing her mental muscles, which is number two on the list of evidence-based strategies for keeping your grey matter in top shape.
“There’s lots of evidence that the more cognitively active you are,” whether at work or at home, “and the more complex those cognitive activities are, the better your cognitive health as you age and the lower your risk of dementia,” says Nicole Anderson, a neuropsychologist and senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute in Toronto.
Dig into activities that challenge you: Do crossword puzzles, read, use a computer or learn photography or quilting. Variety is also key. “That way, you’re training different kinds of cognitive processes,” says Anderson.
Perhaps surprisingly, studies find that brain-training games have limited impact on mental health. You will master the game, says Anderson, but you won’t improve everyday cognitive performance.
Be social and eat well
Staying socially active, and forging and maintaining strong, supportive relationships, does the brain good. “Having a network of close confidants and people you can rely on and trust has been linked to better cognition and lower dementia risk,” Anderson says. “Quality matters more than quantity.”
When you’re with those friends, set out a platter of veggies, fruits and legumes. A plant-forward diet that limits red meat and processed foods, and focuses on other items like whole grains, nuts, heart-healthy oils (such as olive and canola) and fish, helps protect and even improves some types of brain function, according to Carol Greenwood, a nutrition researcher and senior scientist at the Rotman Research Institute. One study of adults over 50 who ate this way for four months showed that they scored as well on tests of reading and writing speed as people nearly a decade younger.
The trick, of course, is sticking with these strategies, so whether you’re choosing brain-healthy foods or deciding on a type of exercise, pick things you enjoy. “If you really like what you’re doing,” says Bherer, “you’ll maintain it.”