Just like our bodies, our brains change as we age. The older we get, the harder we recall information, like the name of a restaurant we went to or where we put our keys. Or it may take longer to learn something new.
But the good news is we actually have a lot of control in keeping our brains healthy and from aging prematurely — and it starts with daily habits. Most notably, the behaviors we avoid could have a positive impact on our cognition.
We talked to experts about seemingly harmless habits we may be doing every day that could be aging our brains — and what we can do instead. Here are the mistakes to correct ASAP:
1. You don’t get enough social interaction.
From working remotely to having a new baby to retiring, there are a lot of situations life throws at us that can make it more challenging to get out and be social.
“It’s so common in our culture to slowly lose our social network as we go through life,” said Dr. Zaldy Tan, the director of the Memory and Healthy Aging Program at Cedars-Sinai. “We need to have some kind of social network that we can turn to whenever we need it — or even if we don’t think we need it.”
So, how does socialization impact the brain? “Every time we meet someone new … we make a new connection within our brain between brain cells,” Tan explained. Plus, a strong social network has been shown to improve mood, which is linked to our brain health. (Depression is one of the risk factors for dementia.)
While in-person interactions seem to be most beneficial for brain health, online socialization and virtual conversations can also help, said Dr. Glen Finney, a fellow of the American Academy of Neurology and director of the Memory and Cognition Program at Geisinger Health.
“There are certain people who are literally physically isolated … or may not have friends and family in their local area, [and] their online community becomes their lifeline and can have some real benefit,” Finney said.
2. You keep your brain active – but only by doing the same things over and over again.
You not only want to engage your brain by preserving the skills you already have, but you also want to get your brain outside of its comfort zone, Finney explained.
“If you say, ‘I’m no longer a kid anymore. I’m not going to worry about learning anything’ … [That] actually can sabotage your brain health and lead to premature brain aging,” he said.
Just like when we meet someone new, learning something new forms connections between our brain cells and helps to keep the brain youthful.
“You should always be expanding your mental horizons,” he said. “If you’ve never taken a musical instrument, learn a musical instrument. If you’ve never read a foreign language, learn a foreign language.”
3. You dismiss the chronic stress you’re carrying around.
Stress is a part of daily life, and our bodies can typically recover quickly from a specific stressful event or situation. The problem is when this stress becomes chronic — and we don’t address it.
“We are really skilled at keeping the stress response on all day — at a moderate level that we might not even notice,” said Dr. Elissa Epel, a psychiatry professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of “The Stress Prescription.” “Even when nothing stressful is happening, we may be carrying around unconscious stress.”
She said it’s important to be aware of this stress and release it throughout the day, such as being mindful of our thoughts and slowing our breathing. Creating “short-term states of acute stress in our body” can actually help relieve stress, she added, such as using a sauna, taking a cold shower, or trying a high-intensity workout. This gives us more states of relaxation during the day and a better sleep quality at night.
“When we are able to have deeper rest states, both during the day and while asleep, we give our neurons a chance to restore as well and slow brain aging,” she explained.
4. You rely on takeout too much.
“When we’re … busy with our professional and social lives, it’s a natural tendency to pick something that is quick [that] you can pop in the microwave or go to a drive-thru,” Tan said. “[But] in the long term, that may not really be the best for our brains.”
Fast foods are often highly processed and full of saturated fats and added sugars. Studies have shown that a diet high in these types of foods over the years can lead to a higher risk of dementia.
“We know that [these] may prematurely age the brain and can lead to health conditions that [are] very hard on brain health,” Finney said. (For example, studies suggest that uncontrolled diabetes can lead to brain shrinkage.)
There’s nothing wrong with eating fast food or takeout every so often ― it’s delicious, can be the most affordable option and sometimes we simply need it. As much as you can, try to also focus on a diet high in Omega-3 fatty acids, such as green leafy vegetables, fish, olive oil and nuts. Omega 3s have been shown to increase memory, learning and blood flow in the brain.
5. You aim for enough sleep each night — but the quality isn’t good.
Even if you’re aiming to get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep a night, if your sleep quality is poor, you’re likely to wake up feeling tired the next day. And both the quantity and quality of sleep are essential for brain health.
“During sleep, the memories of the day are sorted out and placed in the right place for us to access in the future … [Also] beta-amyloid, the sticky protein that wreaks havoc on the brains of people with Alzheimer’s, is cleared during sleep,” Tan explained. “When sleep is too short or of poor quality … these processes are interrupted.”
The next day, you may have a hard time concentrating or difficulty recalling information. But over the years, poor sleep can increase the risk for your brain aging prematurely and developing dementia.
To improve the quality of sleep, Tan recommends setting a consistent bedtime, minimizing alcohol, reducing fluid intake before bed, avoiding sedatives and sleep medication, and limiting your bed for mostly sleeping (no scrolling or watching TV in bed).
6. You don’t incorporate physical activity into your lifestyle.
“Physical exercise, especially cardiovascular but also even muscle building exercises, are important for keeping the brain … youthful,” Finney said. “It actually can increase growth hormones in the brain, like nerve factors that promote brain health and wellness.”
Beyond working out, Tan recommends making physical activity a part of your lifestyle. “Whether it be … gardening or … taking a hike, there are some things we could incorporate into our daily lives that in the long run are probably more sustainable and beneficial than spending an hour in the gym once a week.”
When physical activity becomes a lifelong habit, there are multiple benefits, from decreasing stress and increasing blood flow to the brain.
Remember: We have a lot of control over our brain health.
The worst thing we can do for our brains is to just give up as we age.
“Don’t think everything just has to happen that way because you’re getting [older]. Take care of your brain, take care of your body,” Finney said. “And if you do that, you can successfully age and not have as many changes as you might think.”