Mind Over Matter: Five Ways to Train Your Brain

New research suggests that by 2050, the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease may nearly triple. Is there a way to prevent this mind-robbing condition?

brain training tips

Photo Illustration by Adam Voorhes

Rudy Tanzi knows how to give the brain a workout. Whether he’s charting new frontiers in science or jamming on the keyboard with his buddy Joe Perry, the director of the genetics and aging research unit at Mass General is always looking for ways to stimulate the mind and prevent the onset of dementia. “One of the biggest misconceptions about Alzheimer’s is that if you have a family history, you’re going to get it,” says Tanzi, whose work focuses on identifying the gene mutations associated with the disease and translating that information into drug discovery. “Lifestyle can make a difference regarding risk.” Here, he offers five tips that will help you get into the best mental shape of your life.

1. Exercise More

“What’s good for the heart is good for the brain,” Tanzi says. Physical activity reduces the risk for stroke and aids in neurogenesis, or the birth of new cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s.

2. Use Your Network

And not just the online kind. It’s important to get face time with friends and family. “Stay socially engaged,” Tanzi says. “Loneliness and social isolation are risk factors.”

3. Keep Learning

That crossword puzzle is only helping if you have to look up the answers: “When you learn new things, you not only make new synapses, but you also strengthen the ones you have,” Tanzi says.

4. Go Greek

“Multiple studies have shown that a Mediterranean diet, high in olive oil, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and mixed nuts, can reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s disease,” Tanzi says. These foods also lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels.

5. Floss (Mentally)

Deep sleep is to the brain what dental floss is to teeth—it cleans out the beta amyloid (a protein that Tanzi refers to as “brain gunk”), which, as it accumulates, can trigger neurodegeneration.


A Personal Trainer for Your Brain: Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s Brain Fit Club puts your gray matter to work.

Feeling sluggish? Can’t find your keys? It might be time to get a mental tune-up at your local brain gym. Yup, that’s a thing, and over at BIDMC, the Brain Fit Club is offering programs for anyone seeking to improve their mental functioning. An initial visit may even be covered by your insurance.

Based on both traditional and holistic approaches to healing, the club’s treatment starts with an evaluation by a neuropsychologist to assess your cognitive abilities and identify weak areas. The team then prescribes targeted workouts: a music-based cognitive-training program to improve concentration, perhaps, or a round of tai chi to improve gait and balance. Bonnie Wong, a neuropsychologist at BIDMC and the director of the Brain Fit Club, says that exercises like these can help injured brains heal faster and help healthy brains stay that way.