by Henry Emmons, MD and David Alter, PhD, authors of Staying Sharp: 9 Keys to a Youthful Brain through Modern Science and Ageless Wisdom
Have you noticed the signs, the subtle or not-so-subtle changes reminding you that you are growing older? You may embrace aging or you may deny it, but lurking beneath the surface for many of us is the uncomfortable fear that with age it is not just our body, but also our mind and memory that will decline. And this fear is not limited to elders—studies show great concerns about memory and brain health even among those in their 20’s and 30’s.
Yet alongside these fears there is the real possibility that you can thrive as you age, that the second half of life can actually be your richest and most fulfilling. We understand the brain in a much deeper way than ever before, and you can protect and change your brain in positive ways. Here are 9 tips to sustain a youthful brain, drawn from Staying Sharp, to help you become one of those people whose best days are truly ahead of you:
A youthful brain loves movement.
Movement (notice we don’t call it “exercise”) is not only good for your body; it acts like fertilizer for the brain. It literally makes the brain bigger, faster and stronger. Movement is brain-protective, providing a “good stress” that helps you adapt to the more harmful forms of stress. It also helps regulate 3 keys to overall health: blood sugar, emotions and sleep.
Take Action: It is never too late to start moving, so start now. If you like vigorous exercise, mix it up over the week with moderate aerobic, more intense interval training, and one or two sessions of weight training (be sure to check with your doctor first if you haven’t been exercising). If you don’t like exercise, just move, but try to move daily: walk, dance, bike, swim, or simply stand up every 15-20 minutes.
A youthful brain is well rested.
Sleep is perhaps the most non-negotiable aspect of good brain health, yet most Americans are sleep-deprived, a problem that can rise with age. Good sleep is like a miracle for brain health: it supports mood, memory and healing, and it is during deep sleep that the brain literally cleans itself out.
Take Action: Nearly everyone needs 7-9 hours of sleep per night, so aim for that amount. Try to keep closely to the same sleep schedule every day, especially the time you wake up in the morning. Sleep rhythms are incredibly sensitive to light, so aim to get 30 minutes of bright light exposure in the mornings, turn your lights way down for the last two hours before bed and keep your bedroom dark and cool. Also, finish eating or drinking alcohol three hours before bed to be sure your body is ready for sleep.
A youthful brain is well nourished.
Diet can heal (e.g. omega 3’s reduce inflammation) or destroy (e.g. even slightly elevated blood sugar is shown to shrink the brain). None of us needs to be perfect, but making the healthier choice most of the time gives your brain the right information it needs to do its job, and do it well.
Take Action: Do these 3 things daily to get a jumpstart on a healthy diet:
Fill half of your plate with plant-based foods (fruits or vegetables) at each meal;
Add more good fats throughout the day: fatty fish (sardines, herring, salmon), nuts (walnuts, almonds, pecans), seeds (flax, hemp and chia), avocadoes and olive and coconut oils.
Eat good-for-your-gut foods every day: fermented or cultured foods like sauerkraut or kimchee, miso, yogurt or kefir; and fiber-rich foods such as beans, legumes, berries, apples, broccoli, peas and cabbage.
A youthful brain cultivates curiosity.
Novelty, play, and wonder act as potent brain “fertilizers” that reboot the brain.
Take Action: Take on the mindset of a beginner and see the freshness in things: what new thing will you do this week? It might be learning a new dance move, exploring a different part of your city, taking a class or even just learning a new word. Add the element of play and learn a new puzzle or game. Doing something with others makes it even more powerful.
A youthful brain is flexible.
The science on neuroplasticity has shown us the brain’s amazing capacity to change and adapt through the whole of our lives. By learning to respond more flexibly to change, you will be able to thrive despite the challenges you will undoubtedly face.
Take Action: Do something challenging, slightly outside your comfort zone. Examples include meeting new people or joining an organization; taking up a language or a musical instrument; or going to a meditation, yoga or tai chi class.
A youthful brain is optimistic.
While we naturally vary in degrees of optimism, it is a skill that can be honed with great rewards. A key to greater optimism lies in observing where you place your attention, and learning to focus more on the good in your life.
Take Action: Practice placing your attention where you want it to be by sitting quietly for a few moments with your awareness on your breathing. There is no need to change your breath, just try focusing on it and nothing else. Work up from 3 minutes to 10 or even 20 minutes daily. As your mind becomes more still, bring to mind some of the goodness in your life. Later, try to notice good things as you encounter them.
A youthful brain is empathic.
Our brains are wired to care, to be generous and compassionate, and when we learn to love well, we naturally become happier, calmer and more content.
Take Action: Sit quietly and bring to mind someone you care deeply about, then imagine that you open your heart to them. Silently wish them well in any way you’d like. With practice, try this with someone you barely know, and even with someone you don’t especially like.
A youthful brain is well connected.
We are social beings, and our brains change when we are around others. Mental and physical health depends on how well social connections provide meaning, purpose, and direction.
Take Action: Draw a series of concentric circles, with you in the middle. List those who are in your innermost circle (close family/friends); the next outer circle (e.g. acquaintances and work associates); and the next outer circle (e.g. people you encounter occasionally but don’t know well). Use this to visually depict the richness of your connections with others, and think of 2-3 steps you can take to bring more people into your inner circles.
A youthful brain is authentic.
One of the goals of a well-lived life is to become more and more fully yourself. Living authentically is the capacity to live consciously and fully, expressing your own deepest nature.
Take Action: Notice when you are living out others’ expectations, but don’t judge yourself for doing so. Just use this information to decide how to live more from your own deeper wisdom. Consider taking a personal retreat or just carve out a a couple of hours to explore questions like these posed by Wayne Muller (How, Then, Shall We Live):
Who am I?
What do I love?
How shall I live, knowing I will die?
What is my gift to the family of the Earth?