Updated: Dec 27, 2022
Easy switches for better brain health!
By Austin Perlmutter, MD
Better brain health is about the best gift you could give yourself for the coming year!
Limit unnecessary, excessive and stressful media to help improve brain function
Choosing to prioritize quality relationships and good sleep are two amazing ways to help improve brain health
Try pushing your brain a bit each day with new challenges to help keep your brain sharp and healthy
At the end of each year, we find ourselves reflecting on accomplishments, struggles and looking ahead to what comes next. For many, this leads to resolutions around improving diet, getting in more exercise and becoming better at work or relationships. Yet far too often in the process of committing to these changes we miss the fundamental significance of improving our brain health and function. With this in mind, consider skipping the fad diets and quick-fix strategies and instead focusing on your brain. Here are 3 powerful and science-backed strategies to power your brain for success in the coming year:
1. Cut out unnecessary brain-draining media
Our brains are incredibly energetically demanding, comprising 3% of our body weight but using 20% of our energy in a given day. Most of that energy is used by our neurons, and the amount of energy they use is directly related to how much they are being used. This means that our brain energy and function is a reflection of where we direct our focus.
If you’re like the average adult, most of your focus is going to be on the media around you. American adults, on average, are spending upward of 11 hours of their day on screens and listening to radio. While there’s plenty of healthy and valuable content on our screens and airwaves, it’s also the case that media content (especially news) has grown increasingly negative and sensationalized.
Stressful and polarizing media content activates stress-responsive parts of our brains and may increase risk for mood issues as well as damage our brain health and function. To this end, limiting your consumption of unnecessarily stressful, draining, sensationalized and polarizing media may do wonders for your brain health. And, at a very basic level, removing the unhelpful content frees your brain up to consume the healthier stuff!
2. Consume more of the good stuff (e.g., healthy relationships and sleep)
One of the most impactful areas of brain research speaks to the brain benefits of very simple daily habits. Besides the usual (and important) topic of eating right for brain health, here’s why relationships and sleep are fundamental for better brain health.
Quality relationships are clearly fundamental to overall as well as brain health. Loneliness, for example, is thought to be risk factor for worse mental health. In a recent observational study of over 12,000 people, loneliness also correlated with a 40% increased risk for developing dementia over a 10-year period. On the other hand, having more close friends late in life is linked to a significantly lower risk for dementia, suggesting a protective effect of close interpersonal bonds. When taken together, this research speaks to the value of cultivating and maintaining close friendships. How to put it into practice? Consider setting a regular phone date, plan a trip to see loved ones and prioritize date nights (and even group videochats!)
When considering lifestyle factors associated with better brain function and health, sleep is all too often ignored. Yet we now know that poor sleep is a risk factor for everything from dementia to depression to worse decision-making. Getting better sleep may be one of the most important strategies we have for quickly achieving better brain health! The unfortunate reality is that despite this science, most people neglect to prioritize sleep. A number of simple steps can be used to help improve sleep quality. These range from minimizing artificial light in the hours before bed to minimizing caffeine consumption in the afternoon. However, if sleep issues are severe or don’t respond to basic lifestyle modification, it’s likely a good idea to seeking professional help with consideration for a sleep study or other testing.
3. Challenge your brain daily!
How can we take steps to constantly move our brains towards a better state? One of the most powerful tools is to perpetually challenge our brains. This can be as simple as entertaining or exploring an opposing ideological perspective. So don’t just be adventurous with travel and new foods; consider opening up space for compassionate conversations with people who have different viewpoints! Another example is learning a new language or practicing an instrument. Even consistent word puzzles (Wordle anyone?) may help keep your brain sharp.
When we challenge our brains, we may help form new connections between neurons through the process of neuroplasticity (a neuroscience term for the brain’s ability to reshape itself throughout our lifespans). Research has even indicated that regularly exercising our brains may help to slow down and even prevent certain aspects of cognitive decline.
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A version of this article I wrote was also published on Psychologytoday.com