Rethinking your habits now could contribute to a healthy brain and memory in years to come. Have you fallen into patterns that are negatively affecting your health? If they’re not good for your body, chances are they’re not good for your brain. Here are six science-backed lifestyle changes that can help you stay sharp and protect your memory into the future.
1 Stop smoking for better brain function and memory
Smoking impairs lung function, so it limits the amount of essential oxygen your body and your brain receives. It also irritates the eyes and nose, so your brain finds it harder to process information it gets from two key senses – sight and smell.
More importantly, smoking damages and even shrinks your brain. Scans show that current and former smokers have a thinner cortex than those who have never smoked. The cortex is responsible for important thought processes such as memory, language and perception.
Also, according to one 2017 study, the longer you smoke, the higher your risk of age-related brain volume loss, which may be why smokers are 30 per cent more likely to develop dementia.
The sooner you stop, the better your chances of restoring brain function and structure. Stopping smoking before you develop dementia appears to reduce your risk of the disease to the level of a non-smoker.
2 Limit your alcohol for better mood and cognition
Alcohol is a depressant, so it shuts down the parts of the brain that cause us to worry and self-limit. That’s why we feel relaxed and happy when we have a drink.
But once we’ve sobered up, the alcohol by-products in our system make us more stressed and nervous.
Alcohol also saps motivation, making us less likely to do the healthier things we need to do to keep ourselves fit.
Too much alcohol is known to be toxic to brain cells. A recent study indicated that drinking too much – over 14 units per week – can cause the hippocampus to shrink.
The hippocampus is the region of the brain responsible for consolidating short-term memories and for the spatial memory we use to find our way around familiar surroundings.
It’s one of the first areas to shrink in Alzheimer’s disease. The study also found the shrinkage was linked to less fluent speech.
A separate study found that the brains of heavy drinkers had less power in areas such as the prefrontal cortex, which is important for decision-making.
3 Move more for a fit brain
Exercise can make your brain fitter, stronger and bigger. Indirectly, exercise also improves mood and sleep, and reduces stress and anxiety.
Problems in these areas frequently cause or contribute to cognitive impairment.
Sitting is unavoidable in much of modern life but staying active – even in minor ways such as walking to the shops or pottering around the garden – can improve your brain health as well as your overall wellbeing.
4 Sleep is essential for your memory
As we sleep, the brain reinforces the connections made during the day, maintains its existing ones and clears away unwanted chemical by-products or toxins created by the brain’s use of energy during the day. It’s also vital for good memory.
Everything you learn goes into your short-term memory first, then it transfers to long-term storage in your brain.
Lack of sleep directly affects brain functioning, making us less able to focus, regulate our mood and stay motivated.
Sleep deprivation impairs decision-making too.
5 The effects of stress on your memory and brain
A host of studies have linked too much stress to failings in the brain.
These include impaired hand-eye coordination, memory loss and increased impulsiveness.
As over stress makes the brain less efficient, you are likely to make more mistakes when undertaking tricky tasks at home or work.
Try to do things that help you manage your stress, such as yoga or meditation, exercise, seeing friends or taking holidays.
If your stress feels out of control, see your GP, as counselling may help you.
6 Look after your teeth
Thorough tooth brushing and flossing help prevent bacteria from plaque getting into your bloodstream.
Last year, researchers found that the bacteria that causes gum disease was present in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s.
Another study in 2017 found that people who suffered severe gum inflammation for a decade or more were 70 per cent more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
Article sources and references
- The rise and fall of cognitive skills. MIT. Accessed February 2020http://news.mit.edu/2015/brain-peaks-at-different-ages-0306#:~:text=Scientists%20have%20long%20known%20that,then%20begins%20a%20slow%20decline.
- Valerie C Crooks 1 et al. ChiuSocial network, cognitive function, and dementia incidence among elderly women. Am J Public Health . 2008 Jul;98(7):1221-7. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2007.115923. Epub 2008 May 29.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18511731/
- Denise C. Park et al. The Impact of Sustained Engagement on Cognitive Function in Older Adults: The Synapse Project. November 8, 2013https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797613499592