You may think you're too young to worry about keeping your brain sharp. Yet the lifestyle choices you make now can greatly impact your brain as it ages. "Making the right choices in your 30s, 40s and 50s will help protect against memory loss associated with normal aging and reduce your risk of getting age-related brain diseases like Alzheimer's," says Gary Arendash, PhD, research professor at the Florida Alzheimer's Disease Research Center in Tampa. Here are 10 changes you can make right away.
1. Become a World Traveler
You might think of travel as a self-indulgent pleasure, but it can actually reduce your dementia risk. "Exposing your brain to complex and novel environments helps it become healthier," says Paul D. Nussbaum, PhD, clinical neuropsychologist and adjunct associate professor of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Reading, writing, playing board games and learning a new language are also good for challenging and stimulating your brain.
2. Plan a Friends’ Night
No need to feel guilty about sneaking off to spend time with your friends. As it turns out, building emotional connections with others can help stave off dementia, says Dr. Nussbaum.
3. Nosh on Unsalted Nuts
Your brain is made up of 60 percent fat, so you need to eat some to keep it functioning well. But remember that not all fats are created equal. To give your brain the most help, eat healthy fats like those you’ll find in nuts. (Stay away from salted nuts because they can raise blood pressure, which is bad for your brain.) Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, tuna and sardines are also great sources of healthy fats. Aim for two to three servings per week.
4. Have a Cocktail
Although research swings back and forth on this one, the most recent studies indicate that moderate alcohol intake could benefit your brain. Note the word moderate, however. That means one to two drinks a day (and if you don’t currently consume alcohol, don’t start), says Dr. Arendash.
5. Get Colorful
Antioxidants, which are found in fruits and vegetables, help rid the body of disease-causing free radicals. That's why Dr. Nussbaum suggests filling the majority of your plate at each meal with fruits and vegetables, aiming for as much variation in color as possible. Although all fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants, berries in particular have been shown to have a positive effect on cognition and brain health.
Research shows that people who attend formal worship live longer, healthier lives. "In Alzheimer's patients, religious rituals calm otherwise agitated parts of the brain," Dr. Nussbaum says, adding that a new field in medicine called neurotheology is studying the neurological activity of the brain during spiritual experiences. Not a religious person? Anything you do to connect with your own spirituality—meditating, spending time in nature, etc.—can help.
7. Schedule Downtime
If you're like most Americans, you're moving at a rapid-fire pace almost 18 hours a day. Meanwhile, your brain is working overtime to keep up with life's demands, and it can suffer from being overtaxed. "Chronic stress can do damage to the body and brain and can impact mood and cognitive functioning, especially memory," Dr. Nussbaum says. Try to create quiet moments every day, even just for a few minutes, where you remove all tasks and responsibilities. Take a walk, sit on a park bench or play an instrument.
8. Choose Smart Supplements
Aside from eating a healthy diet, Dr. Arendash suggests upping your intake of brain-boosting nutrients by taking two supplements: The first is coenzyme Q10, an antioxidant that helps fight free radicals and increases energy production in brain cells. Pop 50 mg daily. The second supplement is alpha-lipoic acid, which helps regenerate antioxidants in the body so they can fight off more free radicals. You can find alpha-lipoic acid in spinach, but unless you eat a ton of it, take a 50 mg supplement once or twice a day.
9. Pump More Blood to Your Brain
Yes, that means you have to sweat a little. “Every time your heart beats, 25 percent of the blood goes to the brain, so when you do physical activity, you're essentially feeding your brain," says Dr. Nussbaum. Try to accumulate 30 minutes of walking daily. Or do aerobic activity like dance, which studies have shown can keep your brain sharp.
10. Know Your Numbers—and Keep Them in Check
High cholesterol and high blood pressure have both been linked to an increased risk of memory problems, says Dr. Arendash. The sooner you get unruly numbers under control, the better.