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Nicole Abendroth

Smart Tips for a Healthy Brain

Want to stay sharp? These tips can help keep your mind functioning at a peak level.

If you were to accept the conventional wisdom, you might start to believe cognitive decline is inevitable. That narrative is a good reason to think twice before buying into conventional wisdom. While everyone's brain changes over time, a growing body of research points out that you can stay sharp as you age. The key is something called neuroplasticity, which is your brain's process of building new neural connections. But neuroplasticity doesn't happen on its own. Just as with your muscles, you need to put in effort to stay at the top of your mental game.

With that in mind, these tips can help keep your brain at its best.

Let go

It happens to all of us. Maybe you're still irritated at something a family member said a few months ago. Or maybe you're holding onto a grudge from years back. Or maybe you're unwilling to forgive yourself for something. While those feelings are common – and you may have valid reasons for them – holding onto to them isn't healthy. Numerous studies have found that people who've learned to let go and forgive have lower levels of depression and anxiety, along with generally higher levels of life satisfaction. Still, letting go isn't easy. It'll take work, but the end result could well free you from unresolved anger – and keep your mind clear.

Go ahead, take that nap

Relaxation and stress management are critical for brain health. Harvard Medical School research notes that the brain areas that govern focus and attention are thicker in people who meditate or pray compared to those who don't. In a similar vein, other researchers have found that deep sleep helps you store and access memories. And several studies have pointed out how a 30- to 90-minute nap can improve word recall and boost drawing skills (even among non-artists).

Brighten up your plate

When it comes to brain health, you are what you eat. One example: Researchers have landed on what's known as the MIND diet. It combines elements of the Mediterranean diet, which limits red meat in favor of fish and plant-based foods, and the DASH diet, a plan to treat or prevent high blood pressure. The big finding: Sticking to the MIND diet – which is heavy on fruits, vegetables, olive oil, whole grains, and lean proteins from nuts, fish, and chicken – can slow brain aging and significantly cut Alzheimer's risks.

Usher in the new

At a certain point, most of us fall into routines. Go to bed at roughly the same time every night. Take a morning walk. Read the news with your morning coffee. Nothing wrong with that. But relatively new research makes the case for adding novelty into your life. Why? Our brains are wired to seek out fresh sights, sounds, and even words. You can see it in toddlers when their eyes light up at the site of something new. The research shows that never goes away. So maybe consider taking a trip to somewhere you've never been before. Or taking up a new hobby. Or even just finding a new route for your daily walk.

Flex your mental muscles

Mental exercises also help your brain stay strong. Those can take the form of everything from learning a new language to playing a musical instrument, putting together jigsaw puzzles, and more. And a 10-year Johns Hopkins University study found that these sorts of pursuits can boost mental dexterity and help ward off a host of problems.

As for why, it comes back to neuroplasticity. So get out for a walk in the summer sunshine. Start studying a new language. Mind your diet. They'll all help form those all-important brain connections.

Nicole Abendroth is the assistant editor of Be.Well by Medica.