Keeping your brain healthy will improve every aspect of your life. Thankfully, there are things you can consistently do that will keep that big organ in your skull functional.
According to several scientific studies, here are five things you could do on a daily basis that are good for your brain — and one that isn’t.
We all know that exercise is good for our bodies, but according to several studies, moving our bodies also benefits our brains. A study in Mayo Clinic Proceedings from the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases found that exercise-induced increases in peak oxygen uptake — the study participants rode an exercise bike — were strongly associated with increased gray matter and total brain volume, regions that are involved with cognitive decline and aging.
Don’t feel like running or riding a bike? How about yoga? University of Illinois researchers found that yoga enhances many of the same brain structures and functions that benefit from aerobic exercise. Yoga practitioners are shown to have larger brain structures, including the hippocampus, which processes memories and is known to shrink with age, along with the emotional regulating amygdala and prefrontal cortex.
“Yoga is not aerobic in nature, so there must be other mechanisms leading to these brain changes,” said lead researcher Neha Gothe. “So far, we don’t have the evidence to identify what those mechanisms are.”
If you can’t carve out time for exercise, researchers at New Mexico Highlands University found that walking also benefits the brain. “The foot’s impact during walking sends pressure waves through the arteries that significantly modify and can increase the supply of blood to the brain,” according to a summary of the research. So get your steps in for better brain health.
4. Drinking tea
Drinking lots of coffee may be good for warding off Alzheimer’s disease, but if your preference is tea, here’s some good news: Drinking tea is also good for your brain, according to a study from National University of Singapore. After examining the neuroimaging data of 36 regular tea drinkers ages 60 and above, the researchers found they had better organized brain regions compared to non-tea drinkers.
“Our results offer the first evidence of positive contribution of tea drinking to brain structure, and suggest that drinking tea regularly has a protective effect against age-related decline in brain organization,” said study lead Feng Lei. “When the connections between brain regions are more structured, information processing can be performed more efficiently.”
The study participants drank green tea, oolong tea, or black tea at least four times a week.
3. Taking care of your heart
There’s another benefit to taking good care of your heart: It’s good for your brain, too, according to Emory University researchers. They analyzed identical twins (they share 100 percent of genetic material) and found that individuals who reduced the risk factors for cardiovascular health — blood sugar, serum cholesterol, blood pressure, body mass index, physical activity, diet, and cigarette smoking — had healthier brains.
“Our study across the entire sample of twins confirmed that better [cardiovascular health] is associated with better cognitive health in several domains,” said senior author Viola Vaccarino. “The analyses further suggested that familial factors shared by the twins explain a large part of the association and thus could be important for both cardiovascular and brain health.”
OK, this one is a bit strange, and you’re likely doing it every day anyway, but University of Toronto researchers have found that forgetting is good for the brain. “The goal of memory is not to transmit the most accurate information over time, but to guide and optimize intelligent decision-making by only holding on to valuable information,” according to a release summarizing the study.
“It's important that the brain forgets irrelevant details and instead focuses on the stuff that's going to help make decisions in the real world,” said study co-author Blake Richards. “If you're trying to navigate the world and your brain is constantly bringing up multiple conflicting memories, that makes it harder for you to make an informed decision.”
Context plays an important role in these mechanisms. The researchers give the example of a cashier, who likely doesn’t need to remember the names of every customer, versus that of a designer who meets with clients regularly and should remember details.
1. Drinking (low levels of) alcohol
This one will likely help you with forgetting, right? Obviously, you don’t want to drink too much, but University of Rochester Medical Center researchers found that low levels of alcohol consumption tamp down inflammation and help the brain clear away toxins, including those associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
To reach their conclusion, mice were exposed to low levels of alcohol over a long period of time, the human equivalent of 2.5 drinks per day. Compared to mice who weren’t given booze, the drinking animals showed less inflammation in their brains and their glymphatic systems were more efficient in pumping cerebral spinal fluid through the brain and removing waste.
“Studies have shown that low-to-moderate alcohol intake is associated with a lesser risk of dementia, while heavy drinking for many years confers an increased risk of cognitive decline,” said lead author Maiken Nedergaard. “This study may help explain why this occurs. Specifically, low doses of alcohol appear to improve overall brain health.”
What likely doesn’t help: brain games
Games that claim to make you smarter aren’t supported by science, said Florida State University researchers. In the study, they tasked one group to play a specially designed brain-training video game called Mind Frontiers, while another group solved crossword games or number puzzles. The participants’ working memory and other mental abilities, such as reasoning, memory, and processing speed were then tested to see if there were any improvements. Turns out, the only thing people got better at was playing the games.
“It’s possible to train people to become very good at tasks that you would normally consider general working memory tasks: memorizing 70, 80, even 100 digits,” said study co-author Neil Charness. “But these skills tend to be very specific and not show a lot of transfer. The thing that seniors in particular should be concerned about is, if I can get very good at crossword puzzles, is that going to help me remember where my keys are? And the answer is probably no.”
What does he recommend instead to improve brain function? Exercise.