I’m on a mission to get everyone looking after their brain as routinely as they look after their teeth. Here’s eight easy ways to keep your brain young.
1. Love learning
Learning rejuvenates your brain by generating new brain cells. It also enriches brain networks and opens up new routes that your brain can use to bypass damage. As children we are driven by curiosity. Unfortunately, the joy of discovery can get lost to exams and learning by rote. All too often we associate learning with negative emotions.
Reigniting your curiosity is a great way to keep your brain young. Be curious about the world around you. Wonder how things work. Make a list of things that fascinate you and promise to learn more about them. Don’t limit your world to the familiar. Afford yourself the opportunity to encounter the unfamiliar. Diversify your interests. Become curious about other viewpoints, worldviews and cultures.
2. Create challenge
Your brain has an amazing ability to adapt and change across your lifespan. This flexibility, called neuroplasticity, also allows your brain to compensate for aging, injury and disease.
Challenge changes your brain chemistry and promotes neuroplasticity. Increase your chances of success by choosing something that you enjoy doing or that involves a goal you are motivated to achieve. If you already engage in a mentally stimulating activity, push yourself to the next level. If you play a musical instrument, push the boundaries of your musical ability, commit yourself to a performance or consider learning another instrument. Apply this principle to any skills, hobbies, creative, sporting or intellectual pursuits. Remember routine activities don’t promote plasticity, you need to push yourself to the next level or try something new.
3. Find your stress sweet spot
Stress is a natural part of living. It keeps us motivated, resilient and allows us to adapt to change. Life would be boring without challenge. While poorly managed chronic stress suppresses neuroplasticity and inhibits the growth of new neurons, too little stress is not good either because it can lead to cell loss, boredom and depression.
In the context of brain health, the aim is not to eliminate stress but to identify your individual stress sweet spot where stress is optimal for you. Where you subjectively experience stimulation, arousal, alertness, engagement and even fun. Operating within your optimal zone gives your brain the opportunity to adapt and build resilience by remodeling its own neural architecture.
4. Sit less, stand more
Physical activity has direct benefits on the structure and functioning of your brain. Get moving. Avoid long periods of sitting at work or at home in front of a screen. If you are struggling to exercise for 30 minutes each day, it’s crazy to spend more than an hour sitting in front of a screen in the evening. Spend more time standing, but don’t go overboard. Prolonged standing without opportunities to sit is not good either. The trick is to alternate between standing and sitting and avoid prolonged periods of either. Start to view standing as a form of exercise. If you reduced your daily sitting time from eight hours to six hours by standing for two hours every day instead, the net effect is the equivalent of running six marathons a year.
5. Cherish sleep
Physical activity will also help you to sleep better. This is good news for your brain because disrupted sleep can impair your memory and may even contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Sleep is fundamental to brain health. Your brain also needs sleep to clear the brain of toxins, including those implicated in Alzheimer’s disease.
As we get older, we don’t need less sleep, but we may have trouble sleeping due to shifts in melatonin release and changes in circadian rhythm. Melatonin nudges us toward an earlier bedtime by reaching its peak earlier in the evening while our circadian clock wakes us up earlier in the morning. Continually refusing to synchronize your sleep habits with changed sleep rhythms will push you further and further into sleep debt. Sleep deprivation of this kind will impair your ability to learn, pay attention and remember. Adjust your bed time to synchronize with the new rhythms of your body. Getting more exposure to natural light in the afternoons will also help to push out the time at which melatonin is released.
6. Stay connected
People who live socially engaged lives experience slower cognitive decline and are less likely to get Alzheimer’s disease. Just 10 minutes social interaction can boost your brain performance. Volunteering is a great way to increase social engagement. Volunteering is stimulating and may actually help you to live longer and improve your brain health. People who volunteer are happier, less depressed and report better health than those who don’t.
7. Adjust your attitude to aging
What you think and how you perceive life and situations matter too. Don’t underestimate the power of attitude. People who are over 50 with a negative attitude to aging lose their mental sharpness. People with positive self-perceptions of aging live on average 7½ years longer than those who don’t. Applying negative stereotypes to ourselves as we age can lead us to limit our roles and expectations in ways that accelerate the aging process. For example, we may stop exercising, sit more, learn less and fail to set ourselves goals and challenges.
8. Keep smiling
Smiling is my favorite. Smiling boosts the growth of brain cells rejuvenating the part of your brain involved in learning and memory. Smiling lowers blood pressure, boosts immune function, releases feel good hormones and protects against stress, anxiety and depression. The simple act of smiling makes you feel happy even if you are not.
I prescribe smiling at least five times a day. Once first thing in the morning. It’s a great way to start the day. Once last thing at night. It’s great to end the day on a positive note. Spread the health benefits by sharing at least one smile with a stranger. You can do what you wish with the other two smiles.
Sabina Brennan is a research psychologist, neuroscientist, filmmaker, award-winning science communicator and author of the best selling book “100 Days to a Younger Brain,” which will be available in the U.S. on Jan. 14. Follow her on Twitter.