We all know what we're supposed to do to keep our bodies healthy, limber, and long-lasting. But how do you start treating your brain better—so it works at its best today and will keep working at its best tomorrow?
Unlike diets—in which you can see that you've lost either weight or inches—brain boosting is a tougher thing to track. Although there has been an explosion in brain research over the past decade, much of the work has been done on the elderly, and a lot of the findings show intriguing levels of correlation but, in fact, fall short of actual cause and effect. And the only true examination of your brain comes when you don't really need it anymore—at autopsy.
Scientists' original goal was to prevent both structural and functional changes. Now researchers are trying to understand why some people have what is called cognitive reserve, which is the ability to maintain most or all normal brain function even after negative changes—such as Alzheimer's disease, dementia, or decreased memory—occur.
So, even if you have a strong family history of mental decline in later years, what you do or don't do—right now—could make all the difference in keeping your brain in top condition. Follow our guide for an easy tune-up.
Wake up and smell the coffee. One of the scents most stimulating to the brain is coffee, according to findings from the Kyorin University School of Medicine in Japan. So even if you don't plan to drink any, you should still brew some and take a good, long sniff. Or better yet, actually drink a cup. In one French study, women age 65 or older who knocked back more than three 5-ounce cups a day were 33% less likely to experience decline in verbal fluency than those who drank less than a cup. Voila!
Enjoy a power breakfast high in brain-healthy foods such as blueberries, on top of cereal or fat-free yogurt. Blueberries' antioxidant properties are wonderful, but they also increase blood flow to the brain, which, in turn, improves your neuronal function.
During breakfast, play a game. Time yourself while working a crossword or Sudoku over your eggs and bacon, recommends Cynthia Green, PhD, author of Brainpower Game Plan. It's a great way to boost attention, processing speed, and positive intellectual engagement.
Turn off your GPS. This nifty device actually prevents you from using the parts of your brain involved in spatial navigation, as well as the hippocampus, which controls memory and orientation. The stimulation of your brain peaks at 9 am, so save the GPS for when you're really lost, okay?
Get a move on. At the gym, focus on cardio, which may increase the volume of the hippocampus. If you can't get to the gym, then park a half mile away from the office. Why? Because one of the surest ways to get enough exercise to maintain brain health is to walk at least 1 mile a day.
Lighten up! Reconfigure your lighting with full-spectrum bulbs to stimulate alertness and enhance critical brain functions, such as memory, as well as influence mood. Experts say this kind of light actually mimics what humans were accustomed to before electric illumination.
Get your eyes and ears checked before lunch. By your mid-40s, it's time to start making sure you're regularly checking both your vision and your hearing—vision, annually; hearing, right away to get a baseline and then intermittently with an audiogram, so input to the brain remains optimal.
Make a lunch with crunch. Carrots, celery, and green bell peppers are easily some of the best sources of luteolin, which may contribute to reducing the risk of dementia. You can also cook more often with olive oil or drink peppermint and chamomile teas, which contain luteolin.
Have a nap attack. While we've all heard about the benefits of a delicious 30-minute afternoon snooze, Matthew Walker, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, recently published a study in which subjects napped for 90 minutes to test a more radical sleep strategy called a biphasic sleep schedule. The people who took the longer nap increased their ability to learn, which Dr. Walker believes is due to the fact that during stage 2 non-REM sleep, the brain clears short-term memories, leaving room for new and fresh learning.
Get Web-search savvy. The more experienced people are at doing Internet searches, the more parts of their brains are engaged, according to Gary Small, MD, of the UCLA Longevity Center. So push yourself beyond the basic Google search by exploring its many other options (Google books, blogs, news, etc.), or look at other search engines altogether. Also try spending less time at the sites you usually check every day, and devote more time to exploring some new ones.
Give up smoking once and for all. French scientists from the Institut National de la Sante et de la Recherche Medicale recently proved that middle-aged men and women who smoke almost double their risk of "memory deficit and decline in reasoning abilities." The Whitehall II study—which started examining individuals as young as 35 and followed them for more than 2 decades—also showed that the biggest cognitive benefits of stopping smoking became evident 10 years after cessation. Call this reason #578 to stop puffing and start breathing better now!
Drive home via a different route. One of the keys to brain health is breaking routines, says Paul Nussbaum, PhD, author of Save Your Brain. It's the small changes in rote procedures that give your brain a workout. So tonight at dinner, make sure to change where you sit at the table.
Prepare a dinner rich in omega-3s. Increasing your intake of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA—found in salmon, tuna (especially bluefin), sardines, and herring—has been linked with better nonverbal reasoning and vocabulary.
Eat with family or friends. One of the factors most protective of the brain later in life is regular social interaction, showed a 2008 study at Johns Hopkins. "An engaged lifestyle can modify genetic risk of dementia," comments lead author Michelle Carlson, PhD.
Toss the remote. Turns out every hour spent watching the tube when you're between ages 40 and 59 increases your risk of developing dementia by 1.3%. Each hour spent on intellectual activities decreases Alzheimer's risk by 16%, and an hour of socializing causes an 18% decline in risk.
Say it in Spanish! People who are bilingual are better multitaskers, according to Judith Kroll, PhD, director of Pennsylvania State University's Center for Language Science. You can achieve a similar effect by mastering a new song on a musical instrument you already know how to play.
Get your groove on—as often as you can. Sex not only engages the brain, but in lab rats, it also contributes to the creation of brand-new brain neurons. When rats had sex more than once—and up to 14 days in a row—the critters got the same brain-building effects, plus less anxiety.
Unplug well before you hit the pillow. The quality and quantity of light you take in just before you turn in makes a big difference in how well you'll sleep. Frisca Yan-Go, MD, director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center, recently said that backlit displays—like those on laptops, iPads, and other devices—bombard you with stimulating blue light just when you want your brain to calm down. After all, you can continue reading War and Peace on your iPad tomorrow. Then the next day, start all over again!