Learn the facts to make changes that can truly boost your brain power.
If you want to find ways to try to keep your brain healthy as you age, you don’t have to look very hard. From supplements that claim to sharpen your thinking to books on what to eat for better memory, there’s no shortage of advice out there. But more isn’t always better.
Among the useful, science-backed strategies for protecting your brain — like getting plenty of exercise, fostering social connections, and eating a diet rich in vegetables and healthy fats — there are some real clunkers too. Here are three of the most prevalent myths about brain health, plus the facts you need to know instead.
Brain Health Myth #1: Supplements Can Be a Huge Help
If you do a Google search for the term “brain health supplements,” you get around 600 million results, along with ads for products that promise to “slow brain atrophy as you age” and keep your mind sharp. One of the most popular and most studied is ginkgo biloba, derived from the leaves of the ginkgo tree.
While it would be incredibly helpful to pop a natural pill and suddenly have your brain circuits light up, these supplements offer only modest improvements at best, says Edith Burns, M.D., professor of medicine at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research in New York.
“Many people take a lot of different supplements for brain health, but there’s no evidence to support their benefit,” she says, adding that gingko biloba trials have shown that it doesn’t work quickly and won’t reverse or prevent the progression of memory issues.
So if you do want to try a supplement, it might be worth lowering your expectations. A better approach may be to change up your diet.
For example, consider MIND, which stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. It’s a mash-up of the traditional Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet (an eating plan designed to lower high blood pressure). In addition to helping you lose weight, following MIND might also cut your risk of Alzheimer’s by as much as 53 percent, according to research published in Alzheimer’s and Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.
The MIND diet is heavy on:
- Vegetables, particularly leafy greens
- Whole grains
- Fatty fish, such as salmon
- Olive oil
- Wine (in moderation)
According to the experts at Rush University, where MIND was developed, “the MIND diet includes at least three servings of whole grains, a salad, and one other vegetable every day — along with a glass of wine. It also involves snacking most days on nuts and eating beans every other day or so, poultry and berries at least twice a week, and fish at least once a week.”
Brain Health Myth #2: There’s a “Best Workout for Your Brain”
When it comes to boosting brain power, which is better: strength training or aerobic exercise? What about yoga versus swimming? Happily, you don’t have to choose. Any physical activity provides big-time benefits for the brain.
Case in point: A study in the journal Neurology that tracked 454 older adults for 20 years, including physical exams and cognitive tests, found that those who moved more — any type of activity — had a 31 percent lower risk of dementia.
Another Neurology study that looked at sedentary older adults who already had mild cognitive impairment found that brain health improved with regular exercise over a six-month period. In that research, those who got more activity and also adopted a heart-healthy diet saw the greatest improvement in brain function.
Physical activity helps your brain in numerous ways, according to the Cleveland Clinic, including:
- Better cardiovascular health
- Improved blood flow to the brain
- Reduced inflammation
- Lower levels of stress hormones
When those factors combine, it can be powerful, Dr. Burns says. She suggests not just getting into a workout routine — although that’s helpful — but also adding more movement into your everyday life, such as walking around while you brush your teeth or while waiting for your coffee to brew.
“Not only can physical activity improve brain health, but it has so many other benefits as well,” she says. “It can lead to better daily function, sleep, and mood.” All of those have a ripple effect on thinking and memory, she adds.
And remember, if you’ve never regularly exercised before, it’s never too late to start. Check out this guide for how to start a new exercise routine safely and successfully.
Brain Health Myth #3: Once You Lose Brain Power, It’s Gone Forever
The volume of the brain does naturally decline with age, which can make people feel disheartened, as if there’s nothing they can do to replenish what’s been lost. But that’s absolutely not true, says Scott Kaiser, M.D., a geriatrician and director of geriatric cognitive health for Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California.
“You can grow new brain cells and new connections, no matter what age you are,” he says. “That’s the biggest myth that I wish would go away, because there’s so much we can do to keep the brain regenerating.”
Like what? Regular exercise and eating healthy foods are big ones, he says. But other brain-healthy habits include:
- Prioritizing quality sleep
- Continuing to learn new things, whether it’s taking a Spanish class, piano lessons, or staying on top of world events
- Maintaining social contacts and/or regularly spending time with friends and family
- Managing chronic health conditions, such as high blood pressure or diabetes
- Maintaining a healthy weight
“What improves your overall health tends to be beneficial for the brain as well,” Dr. Kaiser says. “Keep taking healthy steps and your brain will thank you for it.”
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