Better Habits, Better Brain Health

Harvard Health Letter

Exercising, maintaining good health, socializing, and learning new information may help keep you sharper, longer.

Everyone wants to live an active, vibrant life for as long as possible. And that goal depends on robust brain health. While we don’t have a guaranteed way to prevent dementia, we do have increasing evidence that engaging in healthy lifestyle habits may help.

For example, a 2015 randomized controlled trial from Finland suggested that older adults with a number of healthy habits — such as eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and socializing — improved or maintained thinking skills and reduced the risk of cognitive decline.

“Each habit has a big effect the longer you practice it,” says Dr. Joel Salinas, a neurologist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.


One of the best ways to protect your thinking skills is to exercise. “Aerobic exercise helps improve the health of brain tissue by increasing blood flow to the brain and reducing the chances of injury to the brain from cholesterol buildup in blood vessels and from high blood pressure,” Dr. Salinas says.

Exercise also stimulates the brain to release brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a molecule essential for repairing brain cells and creating connections between them. “Some studies suggest there are higher levels of BDNF in people who are more physically active, and they’re tied to a lower risk for dementia,” says Dr. Salinas. Aim for at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking.


The best diet for your brain is the one that’s good for your heart and blood vessels. That means eating lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; getting protein from fish and legumes; and choosing healthy unsaturated fats (olive oil, canola) over saturated fats (butter). Foods associated with slowing cognitive decline include fish with omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, mackerel); strawberries and blueberries; and dark, leafy greens (kale, spinach, broccoli).


These habits also support brain health:

Get more sleep. People who sleep less than seven hours a night have a higher risk for dementia. During sleep, the brain clears out waste material, including excess amyloid protein, which contributes to Alzheimer’s disease.

Manage stress. Stress stimulates the release of the hormone cortisol, which is helpful in small amounts. “But high cortisol levels over the long term lead to excess plaque in blood vessels, decreased oxygen to the brain, and brain damage,” Dr. Salinas explains.

Stop smoking. Quitting cuts down on the risk of blood vessel disease and brain damage, among other health benefits.

Treat underlying conditions. High blood pressure and high cholesterol impair blood flow to the brain. People with depression or hearing loss have a higher risk for developing dementia.


“We know from animal models that engaging in mentally stimulating activities creates new brain connections and creates more backup circuits. So if there’s damage, you still have backup to help you think,” Dr. Salinas explains. The backup is called cognitive reserve, and it’s associated with lower rates of dementia and better thinking skills in older adults. Build your cognitive reserve by learning something new, like a language, dance step, or recipe.

Socializing also has important brain benefits. “People who report having more companionship and more emotional support have a lower risk for dementia and stroke, and higher levels of BDNF,” says Dr. Salinas.

Dr. Salinas says the more habits you practice at once, the better — such as taking a new exercise class with a group of friends.

Can cognitive behavioral therapy help your memory?

When you have trouble finding a word or forget what you were going to say, that’s stressful — and scary. The increased worry that results can lead to even more trouble communicating. So can any kind of anxiety or depression. “You’re less likely to be able to pull up information when the brain is focused on something else,” explains Dr. Joel Salinas, a neurologist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy that can help increase concentration and attention by redirecting negative or distracting thoughts. “If excess thoughts are like flies around food, then CBT helps swat the flies so you can eat in peace,” says Dr. Salinas. A CBT therapist will help you identify distracting thoughts and come up with ways to turn away from them and focus on more rational thoughts, soothing images, or making positive statements to yourself. “It’s good for anyone, and especially for people with anxiety and depression,” says Dr. Salinas.

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