Just a few generations ago, most people weren’t expected to live much past 50. But now, most of us can expect to live well into our 70s and beyond.
A longer life, however, means that we’re working our brains harder as we age.
In an aging population, health services worldwide will face increasing pressure. Combined with our sedentary lifestyles and modern habits—which are harming our brain’s health as well as our bodies—we could be heading toward a crisis when it comes to diseases like Alzheimer’s, according to studies published in the Journal of Comparative Neurology and the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
But, there are things you can do to prevent that fate. Small lifestyle choices throughout your adulthood can help your brain remain alert, creative, rational, and reduce the likelihood of disease.
Here are some steps you can take to guard your brain against deteriorating as you get older:
1. Switch Up Some of Your Food Habits
Maintaining a healthy diet isn’t just good for our bodies, it’s vital for our brains.
You can start by making small, easy changes to your routine, like swapping your late afternoon cup of coffee for a green tea. Green tea contains less caffeine and has antioxidants, which will help protect your brain cells from long-term damage. You can also stay away from smoked foods or those high in mercury like tuna or swordfish, which are high in oxidants and damaging to brain cells.
Eating healthily doesn’t mean consuming only lettuce and quinoa all day—academics at the University of Edinburgh found that a Mediterranean diet full of vegetables, olive oil, and oily fish could help promote cell growth and stave off cognitive decline.
2. Add Just 20 Minutes of Movement to Each Day
Being well rested and properly fed isn’t enough to stave off cognitive decline—you need to get up and get moving.
Aerobic activity boosts blood flow throughout the body and brain. Research has shown that it can improve memory and stimulate cell growth, making it easier for the brain to grow new neuronal connections.
Better still, exercise can have the same effect on the brain as a low dose of antidepressants and be associated with a drop in stress hormones. To get the maximum benefits, try to do about 150 minutes of aerobic exercise each week (or about 20 minutes a day).
3. Bust Out of Your Comfort Zone More Regularly
Your brain will stay fit and alert for longer if it’s continually stimulated and challenged. Contrary to popular belief, our brains are not hard-wired. Old habits can be unlearned and replaced with new ones.
This process is known as neuroplasticity. Learning a new language or how to play a musical instrument is the best way to keep your brain flexible because it forces the brain to forge new neural pathways and develop new connections. By keeping your brain malleable, you’re also maintaining the ability to keep an open mind.
Spending time with people of different generations or backgrounds will also help prevent your brain from defaulting to well-trodden neural pathways and biases.
4. Prioritize Sleep (Seriously)
While we sleep, our glymphatic system “cleans” our brains of neurotoxins, including beta-amyloid plaques and tau proteins. This is an active process that takes time, hence the need to get your seven to nine hours and avoid accumulating “sleep debt.”
As explained in 2015 research published in Nature Review Neurology, a build-up of these neurotoxins can contribute significantly to degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
5. Maintain an Active Social Life
Human beings are social creatures. But as we age, our social circle tends to decline, and we typically experience less social interaction on a day-to-day basis.
However, maintaining an active social life with friends and family is critical to cognitive health. According to a study in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, cognitive decline was reduced by an average of 70% in people who were frequently socially active compared to those who were more isolated.
Interestingly, lonely people have been found to be more alert to threats and the possible dangers posed by strangers. This is because a brain not used to social situations will treat social stimulation as something new, and therefore as a threat. It can make us appear more abrasive, defensive, and prone to negativity, perpetuating a vicious cycle.
Our old age should be a time to enjoy socializing with friends and family, picking up new hobbies, and enjoying our well-earned retirement. We spend our whole working lives saving for this time financially. It only makes sense that we should do the same to our brain and make an effort to store some brainpower for our twilight years.
This article was originally published on Fast Company. It has been republished here with permission.