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5 Simple Things You Can Do Today to Keep Your Brain Sharp for Years to Come

Sharpen your memory, improve your focus, and keep your gray matter healthy with these science-backed tips.

gold gears that create a brain on black background

For anyone who’s had to search their mind for a word or a detail (all of us!), it may be a surprise to hear that, according to brain health experts, memory isn’t everything. So why is it the first or only thing we worry about?

“People don’t really care about performing better on some mental test,” says Gary Small, M.D., chair of psychiatry at Hackensack University Medical Center, behavioral health physician-in-chief at Hackensack Meridian Health, and the author of The Memory Bible. “They want to remember their grocery list. When they’re walking down the street and see someone they know, they want to remember that person’s name so they don’t have to say, ‘Hi, um, how are you?’ and can say, ‘Hi, Mary, how are you doing?’ ”

But memory is much more complicated than plucking a name from your brain or knowing you’re running low on milk. Recalling a friend’s name, for example, is also tied to your brain’s processing speed, your ability to focus, and a host of other factors you can improve. But you’ll have to put in some effort.

“In general, people have unrealistic expectations around memory,” says Sherrie D. All, Ph.D., owner and director of the Chicago Center for Cognitive Wellness and author of the upcoming book The Neuroscience of Memory. And, as she points out, it’s not all about age: “People over 40 forget that they forgot things when they were in their 20s too.”

A fair amount of misinformation is out there that can make you feel bad about your brain. For instance, your brain doesn’t stop growing as soon as the ink on your diploma is dry, as you might have heard. A reassuring scientific concept called neuroplasticity means your brain has the ability to modify its structure and function throughout your life. New cells can be produced in our brains even when we’re considered to be in old age. This means that if you’re wishing you could make your brain stronger, you absolutely can.

“We can’t boost your IQ, but with brain training you can improve your concentration, expand your working memory, and more,” explains Dr. All.

What is brain training?

When it comes to the field of cognitive rehabilitation, which usually addresses people who have had a stroke or a brain injury, there are two types of strategies used to improve cognitive skills: compensatory and restorative. And they can work for the rest of us as well.

Compensatory strategies are work-arounds that help you complete tasks, the way a crutch might help you walk if you had a broken leg. Think of that song you sang to memorize the presidents, or how you visualized a hydrant with a balloon tied to it to help you remember that the periodic table starts with hydrogen and helium. It’s making a habit of always putting your car keys on a hook by the door or, when meeting a new person, repeating their name to solidify the memory.

blue brain with layers on blue background

Compensatory strategies make up the majority of what you can do to build up your brain. But a small number of cognitive-rehab strategies are restorative, meaning they’re actually repairing or improving brain function. Think about, for example, how a person who’s had a stroke may have to relearn to walk or speak. “And then there are other brain health behaviors you can adopt—like getting enough sleep and eating well—to focus your memory, improve your recall and comprehension, and more,” says Dr. All.

What should you expect when you’re expecting to make brain gains? “What’s realistic depends on what people are willing to do,” says Dr. Small. Brain training isn’t all fun and games (although, admittedly, some of it is!). To some degree, just as with diet and exercise, you get out of it what you put into it.

But it’s important to note that what happens in a lab doesn’t always translate to the outside world. “Usually activities in scientific studies are not the same as what people actually do from day to day,” says Dr. Small. (Perhaps you’re not able to spend three months on a meditation retreat, for example.)

Regardless, experts told us that the following strategies not only are worth your time and energy, but also have been shown to improve the way people process, focus on, store, and recall information. See how many of these five mind-modifying habits you can regularly work into your life.

1. Commit to exercising.

There’s no debate: Working out does a body and a brain good. “We have really strong evidence that exercise can help you grow more brain cells, increase the number of connections and pathways in your brain, and create more nerve growth factors—which are like Miracle-Gro for your brain cells,” says Dr. All.

While there’s no one specific type of workout that all experts recommend, studies have looked at the brain-building benefits of everything from hopping on a bike to getting into bird pose. One small study showed that high-­intensity interval training in adults 60 and older, for example, resulted in an increase of up to 30% in memory performance. The research, published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, focused on high-interference memory, which helps you do things like distinguish one car from another that’s the same make and model.

A scientific review from the University of Illinois used MRI images to demonstrate one benefit of yoga: Regular yoga practice brought about increased volume in the hippocampus (a part of the brain involved in memory) and a larger prefrontal cortex (which is essential to planning). Bottom line: Pick a fitness path you enjoy—and stay on it.

2. Challenge yourself to learn new things.

You may have heard this and thought it meant you had to learn to play the guitar or download Duolingo and take up Mandarin. Sure, those things would definitely sharpen your brain (learning a new language boosts your gray matter, which is tied to memory and attention, for example), but you might give up by the third lesson if you’re overwhelmed.

“The idea is to train your brain, not strain your brain,” says Dr. Small about whatever brain-building activity you choose to engage in. “Each of us needs to find that entry point so the new activities we choose are engaging and we’re motivated to do better at them.”

That might mean bringing novelty and variety into your favorite activity by, say, switching out your daily crossword for a sudoku puzzle a few days a week. If you like painting, try a freehand drawing class. You’re easing yourself into something new by building on something you enjoy. Introducing a challenge helps your brain create new pathways instead of repeatedly activating the old ones, experts say.

“If you’re committed to working on any kind of mental task, you’ll get better and faster at it over time,” says Dr. Small, who used to get stuck on the New York Times crossword puzzle (which gets harder each day of the week) by Tuesday but now makes it to Thursday. “We all have the capacity to improve. It’s a matter of practice,” he says.

3. Do something meditative and mindful.

You’ll never remember the name of the person you just met or the five things your partner asked you to buy from the store if you can’t focus on those things. Thankfully, a 7,000-year-old practice can help sharpen your attention in less time than you probably spend looking for something you’ve misplaced. Research has shown that even brief bouts of mindfulness meditation can have instant benefits. In one small study, novices to the practice spent 10 minutes listening to an audio-guided mindfulness meditation and saw an immediate increase in their attention, accuracy, and reaction times in a task performed afterward, compared with a control group.

“The idea is to train your brain, not strain your brain.”

Another long-term study from the University of California, Davis, Center for Mind and Brain looked at the impact of a three-month meditation retreat on a group of 60 experienced practitioners. Few of us have that kind of time, but interestingly, some of the gains in attention the participants achieved immediately after the retreat stayed with them seven years later, though they had reduced their practice to about an hour a day.

Focus is a good place to, well, focus your brain-building desires. “Attention is definitely the most malleable of all the cognitive domains, from what we’ve been able to see or prove,” says Dr. All. “Meditation is a good strategy for strengthening your brain—even if you’re just focusing on your breath during those minutes. When people meditate, over the course of weeks their hippocampus grows, their prefrontal cortex increases in volume, and their fear detector—the amygdala—likely shrinks.”

That last part is key, because you can’t focus when you’re in a state of panic or stress. “Cortisol is toxic to brain cells,” says Dr. All. “You can’t get rid of all your stress, but you can let meditation help you get out of fight- or-flight mode.”

4. Get more social.

“Once we’ve moved beyond the financial and physical impact of the pandemic, the longest-lasting negative consequence will be its mental health impact,” says Adam Gazzaley, M.D., Ph.D., the founder and executive director of Neuroscape, a neuroscience center at the University of California at San Francisco that’s focused on the intersection of technology and brain health.

He notes that isolation is not good for brain health: “The data is quite convincing that isolation can impact not only how long you live but also how well you live.” He says we need to find ways to regularly stay in touch with family and friends, even during this pandemic. That means upping your Zoom game, watching movies online together, or heading out on more (socially distanced) walks.

It’s not just that isolation brings greater risk of cognitive decline— socializing is very good for your brain because it’s another way to learn new things. “When you’re having conversations with other people, you’re working your brain,” says Dr. Small. Just 10 minutes of conversation (not debate) can increase executive-functioning skills like working memory and the ability to suppress distractions, says a study in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

brain in the shape of a maze puzzle with red line going through
Sam Kaplan/Trunk Archive

5. Try playing games.

Brain-training games are a multibillion-dollar industry that has skyrocketed in the past year, thanks to the pandemic-spurred need for e-learning. If you’ve ever wondered whether the apps you see advertised on your Facebook feed are worth it, know that the answer is a solid…maybe.

The first thing to know is that not all brain games are created equal. “There are good games and bad games,” says Dr. Gazzaley, whose lab has been developing and testing video game technology to enhance brain health for over a decade. “So ‘Do games help or hurt?’ isn’t a good question. The devil is in the details.”

Also, different games have different brain-gain goals. Some are slow and strategic with the aim of enhancing your thinking skills, while others are action-packed with the aim of speeding up your processing. “The challenge is that a lot of the data is mixed right now,” says Dr. Gazzaley, who is working to understand how the enhanced attention abilities achieved in a game can affect day-to-day life.

As it stands now, there isn’t a ton of definitive research on the benefits of commercially available brain games. But the likelihood of their hurting you is low, and it’s possible that they will help, so do a little research on their claims before you buy, and then, if you’re interested, give them a go.

It may seem overwhelming to adopt all these new behaviors, but one key to bringing ease to the process: Look at it less as a chore than as pure fun. Whether it’s going for a bike ride or finding 10 minutes to meditate and de-stress, let the brain-boosting elements of all these habits be the icing on your cerebral cake.

This article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of Prevention.

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