“Eat healthy, get quality sleep, and make sure to exercise.” Even as kids most of us are taught the importance of taking care of our bodies. But what about our brain health?
If you really think about it, your brain is the orchestrator behind every experience, perception, and action in life. Our brains begin organizing our experiences even before we leave the womb. From making our first movements in the second trimester, to learning to walk and talk, to learning new languages and technical skills, to experiencing joy and love and all that it means to be human — our brain is behind it all.
So why is it that we focus so much on physical health and pay so little attention to brain health?
Although it’s not talked about nearly as much as it should be, taking steps now to ensure a healthy brain can go a long way in preserving your brain health in later years.
What is Brain Health?
Brain health refers to your brain’s ability to function efficiently and effectively in four main areas: cognitive function, tactile function, emotional function, and motor function. 
Cognitive health typically refers to our ability to “think, learn, and remember,” according to the United States National Institute of Health.  In more practical terms, cognitive health can impact your ability to make sound decisions and lead to impaired focus and memory capacity.
Your brain also controls your motor function, or “how well you make and control movements.”  This can include everything from balance and walking, to picking up items, pushing buttons, and writing.
Emotional function refers to your emotional experience. Your brain not only controls your feelings and emotions, but your ability to identify, understand, and work through them.
This refers to how your brain interprets and responds to feelings of touch, like pain, temperature, and pressure.
Why You Should Care About Your Long-Term Brain Health
As you can see, your brain’s health directly impacts everything from your ability to move, to your ability to feel and think. While it would be nice if our brain’s health was magically preserved forever, this is, unfortunately, not the case.
As we age, so do our brains. And just as our muscles, bones, and skin will show wear and tear over the years, so do our brains. It’s just harder to tell when brain function begins declining, which is why it’s so important to keep a watchful eye.
Age-related cognitive decline
The natural decline in brain function is referred to as age-related cognitive decline. Age-related cognitive decline typically begins in older adults, meaning people aged 65 and over, although it can begin closer to midlife. 
Age-related cognitive decline often looks like :
- Lapses in memory
- Slowness in thinking
- Difficulty multitasking
- Difficulty maintaining concentration
- Struggling to find the right words
Mild cognitive impairment (MCI)
MCI shares many similarities with subjective cognitive decline. People with MCI experience heightened problems with memory, beyond the scope of natural aging. However, these memory issues are mild enough that they do not impair their ability to live independently.
A diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment is linked with a heightened risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s in later years. Spotting MCI is often challenging, as many people with mild cognitive impairment may develop coping skills, like setting phone reminders to compensate for what seems like innocent forgetfulness. 
Symptoms of mild cognitive impairment include :
- Problems with memory
- Losing your train of thought
- Forgetting important events or appointments
- Experiencing difficulty navigating familiar places
- Overwhelm when faced with decision-making and planning
- Increased anxiety
- Heightened impulsiveness
Alzheimer’s disease and dementia
Alzheimer’s, also called senile dementia, is a progressive disease that “slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, and eventually, the ability to carry out basic tasks,” states the U.S. National Institute on Aging (NIA). Roughly 6 million Americans aged 65 and older are estimated to live with it. 
Dementia is a general term that refers to a decline in mental activity that is severe enough that it impedes daily life.  The NIA reports that Alzheimer’s is associated with an increased risk for developing Dementia. 
Symptoms can include :
- Trouble recalling new information
- Disorientation and forgetting where you are
- Extreme confusion
- Shifts in behavior
- Difficulty speaking and finding words
- Problems recognizing family members
- Trouble swallowing
- Challenges walking
7 Known Risk Factors for Cognitive Decline
According to the University of California: San Francisco’s Memory and Aging Center, an estimated 50% of Alzheimer’s disease cases can be impacted through the management of 7 known risk factors :
- High blood pressure
- Midlife obesity
- Type II Diabetes
- Little to no physical activity
- Little to no mental exercise
8 Tips to Improve Brain Health and Threats to Look out For
Although a certain amount of cognitive decline is normal and to be expected, there are steps you can take to preserve your brain’s health for your golden years! Take a look through to learn about 8 things you can do to proactively protect your brain.
#1 Manage chronic conditions
Conditions like stroke, diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure), and heart disease are all known risk factors for cognitive decline in later years. Doing what you can to keep these conditions in check will have a two-fold benefit of supporting your present day health and reducing threats to your brain’s health. 
#2 Eat healthily
Aim for healthy meals with plenty of vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats. A balanced diet is key. Just make sure it’s one that doesn’t make you miserable, and that you feel you can be consistent with. 
#3 Be physically active
Many studies have found exercise to have numerous benefits for brain health. For example, one study found that exercise training increased the size of the brain’s hippocampus, and led to improvements in memory.  Another study found that cognitive decline is nearly two times as common in adults who aren’t active, versus those who are. 
#4 Get quality sleep
Sleep is essential for a healthy brain. Sleep is thought to be highly associated with our brain’s process for storing memories, alongside mental recovery. According to the U.S. National Institute of Health, sleeping less than six hours each night for people in their 50s and 60s can lead to increased risk for Dementia. 
Getting poor quality sleep is also widely recognized as contributing to mental impairment like difficulty focusing, mental fog, and poor memory, so aiming for those 7-9 hours each night is important.
#5 Manage stress
By this point, many of us are familiar with the dangers of unchecked stress. From difficulty focusing & burnout to decreased immune function, chronic stress takes a toll that affects our bodies and our brains.
Numerous studies have found that prolonged stress can significantly impact the shape and function of our brains, from issues with memory to increased risk for dementia. [11, 12] By being proactive about managing your stress, you can potentially reduce your risk for severe cognitive decline in the future.
#6 Stay socially connected
As humans we are socially driven — we often tend to see benefits from community, and consequences from extended perceived loneliness. Prioritizing time with loved ones doing activities that challenge or engage you is a great way to not only support your wellbeing, but can offer cognitive benefits as well. In fact, one study of 12,000 participants found that loneliness is associated with a 40% increased risk of dementia. 
#7 Keep your mind active and engaged
Just like you’d work out your body, your brain benefits from “working out” as well. Reading, writing, puzzles, playing music, engaging in conversation, and playing games — all can give your mind a workout that keeps it healthy and active.
One study asked mentally intact adults how often they did one of the above activities. Over the next five years, those who were in the top third of those who did activities were half as likely to develop MCI than those in the bottom third of activity participants. 
Research has found that there are numerous benefits of meditation for brain shape and function. For instance, Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar and her team of researchers found that meditation could actually increase cortical thickness, or connectivity throughout the brain. She found that our hippocampus (our memory center), amygdala (our fear center), pons, temporo-parietal junction, and more were all impacted by meditation. 
- Learn about cognitive health in older adults with the NIA HERE >>
- Explore when age-related cognitive decline begins HERE >>
- Read about healthy aging with UCSF HERE >>
- Learn about mild cognitive impairment with Cedars Sinai HERE >>
- Discover Alzheimer’s disease with NIA HERE>>
- Explore the difference between Alzheimer’s and Dementia HERE >>
- Learn the signs of Alzheimer’s with the NIA HERE >>
- Read how exercise can impact the hippocampus and memory HERE >>
- Explore the relationship between exercise and cognitive decline HERE >>
- Learn how lack of sleep in middle age can impact brain health HERE >>
- Read about stress and cognitive function HERE >>
- Explore the effects of stress on cognitive aging HERE >>
- Read about the power of social connections with Harvard Health HERE >>
- Discover how to protect against cognitive aging with Harvard Health HERE >>
- Read Harvard Neuroscientist Sara Lazar’s study on mindfulness and the brain HERE >>
- Chronic Diseases and Cognitive Decline — A Public Health Issue HERE >>
- Dietary Factors and Cognitive Decline HERE >>