How to Improve Your Brain Health

By making simple lifestyle changes, you can decrease your risk for Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

Brain neurons lightBrain image via Shutterstock

If you think your Words With Friends addiction is helping your brain, you may be wrong. While these kinds of games (Words with Friends, Scrabble, and Sudoko) do help keep our brains sharp, according to our experts, they won’t help decrease your risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia on their own. Dr. Marie Pasinski, neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, faculty member at Harvard Medical School, and author of the book, Beautiful Brain, Beautiful You, says that brain games are good, but once you’ve mastered that game or skill, you’re not doing your brain any favors. Pasinski’s interest is in getting people to do everything they can in order to keep their brains healthy and vibrant. She says that nothing will have a greater impact on the quality of your life than having your brain function at its best. Here are her tips on how we can improve our brain’s health:

1. Learn something new: “Our brains have this incredible ability to make new neurons and new connections throughout our lives,” Pasinski says. “And one of the things that fosters that is stimulating activities and learning news things. By this I mean undertaking a new pursuit or a new hobby. What a lot of people don’t realize is that memory is like any other skill. If you don’t practice it, it does atrophy over time. It’s the old use it or lose it.”

The bottom line: You are never too old to learn a new skill. Pasinski says that one of her patients, a woman in her mid-40s, recently started singing and memorizing lyrics and now her brain is sharper than ever.

2. Get more sleep: “Sleep is so important. What I find so interesting is that sleep promotes neuroplasticity, the growth of new neurons,” Pasinski says. “It grows new neurons in the hippocampus, which is the brain’s memory center, and sleep deprivation reduces the production of new neurons. Also, we are realizing that beta amyloid, the deposit that accumulates in Alzheimer’s disease, is actually cleared in the brain during sleep.”

The bottom line: Pulling an all-nighter to study for that big test or prepare a big presentation? Pasinski says that is counterproductive. You’ll retain the information much better if you get some sleep after studying. You are better off waking up a little early and studying more.

3. Improve your diet: “Diet is incredibly important and the best diet for the brain is the Mediterranean-style diet. It has been associated with better cognitive function and lower rates of dementia,” Pasinski says. “Probably one of the reasons it is good for the brain is that it is rich in omega-3s, which are literally the building blocks of the brain.

“This nutrient plays a key role in forming and strengthening synapses, which are the connections in the brain that allows brain cells to give signals to one another in order to make memory and learning possible. In addition, the olive oils in the Mediterranean diet have special benefits and are associated with lower rates of stroke and better cognitive performance.”

The Bottom line: Improving your diet is not only great for your brain, but you will also decrease your risk for other diseases and ailments like heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and hypertension.

4. Exercise: “Exercise is one of the most important things you can do for the brain. It increases blood flow to the brain and when you get your heart rate up, it turns out your brain is bathed in a cascade of growth factors, promoting the birth of new neurons and creating stronger connections in the brain,” Pasinski says.

“One of my favorite studies is a walking study where they performed MRI scans at the beginning of the study and then again six months later. They had participants walk one hour three times a week for six months and then they compared that group to a group that did a stretch and tone class. What they found was that the walkers had an increase in brain volume that they could actually see on the MRI.”

The bottom line: Walking and jogging beats yoga and Pilates (for brain health).

5. Socialize: “Socializing with other people and enriching your friendships is also important. I really encourage people to make new friends,” Pasinski says. “Especially multicultural and multigenerational friendships. People with rich social networks are mentally shaper and have less risk of dementia. If you take up a new activity and make friends doing it, you are doubling the brain benefits.”

The bottom line: Do some of these things together and double or triple your brain health. For example, if you go walking with a friend and discover a new route or path, then you are getting triple the brain-booting benefits.