There are many ways to improve brain health, but here are my top choices — the Best of the Best.
These activities are pleasurable, easy to adopt and cost little or nothing. They’re well-supported by scientific research, and the benefits they offer can be profound. Adding any combination of these to your life is a great way to lift your spirits, improve brain health and help give yourself a fighting chance to slow cognitive decline.
Try them out. Then come back and leave a comment. Let me know if one of them made a difference for you. Or suggest something you think I should add. I welcome your thoughts, and look forward to revising this list over time based on your feedback.
Here we go:
Take a walk in nature
More than a century ago, a visionary named Frederick Law Olmstead helped launch our national park system, based on his conviction that nature has the power to mend us in body, mind and spirit. Many medical experts have come to agree with him. Spending time outdoors isn’t just good for us. It has actual healing powers.
There’s a growing movement in the medical community to write “nature prescriptions” for everything from obesity and high blood pressure to diabetes. That’s important to know because all three of these conditions are strongly linked to cognitive decline. In fact, the research journals are filled with findings that greater exposure to nature improves memory and mental function.
You don’t even need to trek to the Grand Canyon or the Redwood Forest to reap the benefits. A stroll in your neighborhood park will do.
Enjoy a cup of coffee — or two, or three
The debate over whether coffee is good or bad for your health is over. It turns out coffee is incredibly good for you. And there’s a growing body of research to support that.
Coffee protects against diseases of the mind, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, not to mention heart disease, diabetes and even depression. “Coffee may be the healthiest beverage you can drink,” says Dr. Sanjiv Chopra of the Harvard Medical School. “Most people don’t even know how effective coffee appears to be in preventing a variety of very serious illnesses.”
Experts aren’t sure why coffee is so good for us. But here’s one possible explanation: it’s a great source of antioxidants, which are known to protect the brain. So enjoy that cup of java in the morning. And then have a refill, or two. Coffee is not a guilty pleasure. It’s a healthy habit that you’d do well to indulge in.
Volunteer for a clinical trial
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 130 clinical trials are currently underway, and an estimated 50,000 volunteers are “urgently” needed. Volunteering for clinical trials offers an opportunity for people with mild cognitive impairment to help move that effort forward.
Participating in a clinical trial offers many potential benefits. It allows patients to be more active in their own medical care. In some case, it may give them access to treatments that aren’t yet available to all patients. It also may give them the opportunity to receive medical care, free of charge, at one of the country’s leading hospitals. And then there’s the sense of empowerment that patients find in knowing that they’re doing something proactive to help move medical science closer to a cure.
Keep a journal
It is, after all, your story, your concerns, your journey. And who better to chronicle that story than you? Particularly when the act of keeping a journal has proven to be such a powerful tool for reducing stress, as well as improving one’s emotional and physical health.
“One of the ways to deal with any overwhelming emotion is to find a healthy outlet in which to express yourself, which makes a journal a helpful tool in managing your mental health,” says the University of Rochester Medical Center.
James Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas, says keeping a journal boosts immune cells. He suggests writing about the stresses in your life helps you cope with them. Another study found people who keep a “gratitude journal” are more likely to exercise, and less likely to experience aches and pains.
Words have power. Journaling is a way to harness yours — now and for posterity.
Make sure you get enough vitamin D
We’ve long known that vitamin D is important in helping prevent our bones from becoming brittle as we age. But the importance of vitamin D to brain health is a newer discovery. A number of recent studies have shown that aging adults with low levels of vitamin D are much more likely to experience cognitive decline. “It’s a growing concern,” says Joshua Miller, professor of nutritional science at Rutgers University.
Vitamin D is sometimes called the “sunshine vitamin” because our primary source of it is exposure to sunlight. (We can also get it from certain foods, including fortified milk, cheese, salmon and tuna.) As we get older, we may get less exposure to the sun, and we absorb less vitamin D from the sun anyway, as our skin thins and our metabolism slows.
The good news is, a vitamin D deficiency is easy to detect and easy and inexpensive to correct. Talk to your doctor to see if you’re getting enough vitamin D. Addressing any deficiency will not only help protect your brain, it’ll safeguard you from other health ills as well. According to Dr. Chopra, Vitamin D is one of the “Big Five” when it comes to staying healthy, “Vitamin D3 is the only supplement I take regularly,” he writes. “It’s simple: If this growing mountain of evidence is wrong and vitamin D3 supplements don’t fortify my immune system or decrease the chances that I’ll eventually be diagnosed with one of many different conditions, then I’ll be out $30 a year.”
Have a good morning routine
“The way you start your day determines how you live your day,” says author Robin Sharma. He recommends a morning routine that includes time devoted to silence, visualization, affirmation, exercise, reading and journaling.
Other elements of a good morning routine can include enjoying a cup of coffee, eating a healthy breakfast, doing gentle stretches or yoga (as demonstrated in the video above), listening to music, reading a motivational quote or writing an expression of gratitude for some blessing in your life.
Ben Franklin made time every day from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. for a morning routine that began by asking himself, “What good shall I do this day?” You don’t have to devote two hours to your morning routine, but if you carve out 10 minutes, or a half hour, or an hour every more to relax, refresh and reflect, it can change your life for the better. You’ll find a sense of calm and purpose that carries with you through the rest of the day.
Practice some form of meditation
When I suggest meditation, I can already hear your response. “Nope, not for me. I tried it, but I can’t keep my mind still.” I hear what you’re saying; I’m just asking you to give it another try.
“If you’re trying to be healthier, wanting to live longer or better, or wanting to heal, you must have a meditation or mindfulness component on your to-do list. Period,” writes Dr. Belisa Vranich, author of “Breathe.”
It really is that simple. Some form of meditation or mindfulness practice is a must. Recent research at Carnegie Mellon University used brain scans to show that people who took part in mindfulness meditation had more activity in areas of the brain associated with stress reduction, focus and calm.
There are so many different forms of meditation, you can find one that feels right. Try a 10-minute meditation to start. That’s enough to begin to get the benefits. Gradually, you can extend your practice.
If anything, meditation and mindfulness are more accessible than ever, thanks to the many guided meditation apps now available for your smartphone. I had several false starts trying to develop a meditation practice, but once I found the right app, it finally clicked for me and now I wouldn’t think of starting a day without meditating. It offers a precious few minutes every morning when you come to appreciate what Thich Nhat Hanh meant when he said, “The mind can go in a thousand directions, but on this beautiful path, I walk in peace.”
Tickle your funny bone
You’ve heard the expression, “That’s as funny as a heart attack.” Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline aren’t funny either. Yet humor can be one of the healthiest ways to deal with them.
The healing effect of laughter has been understood for years, inspiring a series of books from Reader’s Digest under the “Laughter The Best Medicine” title. Studies have shown that a good laugh boosts the immune system, eases depression, reduces pain and helps instill resilience.
“Playing, laughing and being active while accepting new challenges is a great way to keep the brain engaged and grow new brain cells, to prevent Alzheimer’s,” according to Alzheimers.net.
There are many ways to tickle you funny bone. Watch a classic comedy movie or TV show, or visit the Humor section at your favorite bookstore. Hang around with people whose sense of humor you enjoy. A little laughter will do you a lot of good.