Brain Health: Good Brain Habits
Scientific studies have shown how poor diet and lack of exercise affect brain health. But here’s something really interesting, Jessica Caldwell, a neuropsychologist and director of the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement Prevention Center at the Cleveland Clinic, says there are lesser-known habits that can harm the brain.
The good news is changing at least one of these harmful habits can improve brain health and can even benefit people already dealing with memory issues.
For your brain’s sake, here are nine habits to avoid:
1. Dwelling on the negative
Constantly focusing on negative things not only puts you in a pessimistic mood, but a 2020 study says it can cause a decline in cognition and memory in people 55 years old and older. The study, published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, found that participants who repeatedly focused on negative thoughts had more amyloid and tau deposits in their brains, the biological markers of Alzheimer’s disease.
2. Opting out of vaccines
Studies have found that skipping vaccines recommended for people over 50 places older adults at risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. One nationwide study discovered that adults over 65 who receive at least one flu shot were 40 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
3. Drinking sugar-ladened beverages
Soft drinks, sports drinks, and sweet tea are known to be loaded with sugar, but now it’s been reported that fruit juices are just as sugary. Dr. Annie Fenn, the founder of Brain Health Kitchen, a cooking school and community for Alzheimer’s prevention, describes fruit juice as “primarily a sugary drink without the benefit of fiber,” despite having some beneficial phytonutrients.
4. Lack of quality sleep
The brain does not function properly when the body does not get an adequate amount of sleep. Making decisions, creating new memories, and concentrating becomes more difficult because of sleep deprivation.
5. Turning Up the Volume on your headphones
It’s common to crank up the volume on headphones to hear better. However, Nicholas Reed, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says, as a rule, if someone else can hear sound from your earbuds, they’re too loud. Not only are loud sounds bad for your ears, one study linked mild hearing loss with a nearly twofold likelihood of dementia.
6. Medications Can Affect the Brain
While medications may treat physical issues, some can harm your brain. For example, tricyclic antidepressants, some overactive bladder medications, and some over-the-counter antihistamines can block acetylcholine, a brain chemical important for learning and memory. One study associated the regular use of these drugs with an increased risk of dementia.
7. A Lack of Purpose in Life
Older adults who do not have a sense of purpose in life may be more at risk for developing Alzheimer’s than those who feel they have a purpose, according to studies conducted on the subject. “Having a reason to get up in the morning, knowing that people are depending upon you, feeling that you are making important contributions can contribute to healthy aging,” Dr. Scott Kaiser, director of Geriatric Cognitive Health at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute, told AARP.
8. Poor dental health
The dentist’s office may not be your favorite place to go, but your brain will thank you for maintaining good oral hygiene. A 2022 study in the Journal of The American Geriatrics Society found that poor periodontal health and tooth loss appear to increase the risk of both cognitive decline and dementia.
9. Having a few drinks a week
Two or more drinks a week might help you to relax. Still, light to moderate drinking might be causing a reduction in brain volume, according to a 2022 study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. “Alcohol interferes with brain functions such as speech, memory, judgment, and balance, making it more difficult to think clearly and move appropriately,” Yuko Hara, director of aging and Alzheimer’s prevention at the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, told AARP. Over time, this may be detrimental to brain health.
Foods That Improve Brain Health
A recent study found that the brain enjoys fruits, vegetables, a cup of tea, and wine. Researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago found that study participants who consumed food and beverages with antioxidant flavonols may have a slower rate of memory decline. Flavonols are a sub-class of flavonoids, which are plant-derived nutrients found in many fruits, vegetables, tea, and cocoa.
“The highest quintile of flavonol intake…versus the lowest is associated with a 32 percent reduction in the rate of cognitive decline,” Dr. Thomas Holland, a professor at Rush Medical College who led the research, said in a statement. The average age of the 961 participants was 81, and not one had dementia at the start of the study.
The study reported the top foods and beverages affecting the rate of memory decline were:
• Olive oil
• Tomato sauce
The research team believes the flavonols’ antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties contribute to the slower rate of cognitive decline.
“Something as simple as eating more fruits and vegetables and drinking more tea is an easy way for people to take an active role in maintaining their brain health,” Dr. Holland said. The study was published in the November 22, 2022, online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
Taking Charge of Your Brain Health
It’s never too late—or too early—to start changing behaviors to improve brain health. Dr. Christopher Palmer, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience researcher at Harvard Medical School, says he has spent 27 years studying the connection between mental health, physical health, and brain health.
He also learned from his personal journey that began in his 20s when he was diagnosed with metabolic syndrome, a combination of disorders that increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. By making some lifestyle changes, Dr. Palmer said he was able to overcome the challenges in a few months.
Now, to stay “sharp, energized, and healthy,” Dr. Palmer says there are six things that he does not do:
• Never load up on high-carb foods.
• Never takes more than two days off from exercising, particularly aerobic activities.
• Never gets less than seven hours of sleep a night.
• Never drinks alcohol (the benefits that were once thought alcohol conferred are now being questioned).
• Never stops with self-growth (empathy, relationships, social skills, or improving cognitive abilities can strengthen brain circuits that have been underdeveloped).
• Never loses sight of his purpose in life.
Dr. Palmer describes purpose as “multifaceted” because it involves relationships with other people, yourself, and your community.
“We should all aim to have at least one role in society that allows us to contribute and feel valued,” Dr. Palmer told NBC MakeIt. “This can be as simple as having household chores, or take the form of being a student, employee, caretaker, volunteer or mentor.”