Creating new habits — especially the healthy variety — isn’t easy. New research has largely dispelled the conventional wisdom that forming a habit takes 21 days. In fact, it can take much longer: as much as eight months for some people.
When it comes to your brain, though, forming healthy habits may be worth the trouble. To help keep your brain in top shape, what are some habits you should consider embracing?
Engage in Beneficial Mental Activities
You may have heard that playing challenging games can help maintain and improve cognition. While research has found that playing certain games may improve concentration, memory, mood, and the ability to adapt to new situations, other studies have found that playing games simply improves the ability to play games.
However, recent research indicates that remaining mentally active provides a large degree of protection against cognitive decline related to aging. Beneficial activities that may help improve your brain performance include consciously blocking out unneeded information to concentrate on a task, taking part in new and challenging mental tasks throughout life, working through various choices, and internalizing concepts based on new information.
The take-home message? Not all mentally challenging activities provide equal benefit for your brain; focus on mental tasks that improve life skills like problem solving, planning and high-level reasoning.
Get Some Exercise
You probably know that exercise has a variety of health benefits, but did you know that engaging in a variety of exercise may benefit your brain more than sticking to just one type? One study found that over a six-month period, women suffering from mild cognitive impairment improved their memories when they walked or lifted weights.
Conversely, women who only engaged in stretching or toning exercises suffered from declines in their memory over the same period. Both lifting weights and walking helped study participants improve their spatial memory — which aids us in recalling our environment. However, the women who walked for exercise showed greater improvements in their verbal memory. By engaging in both weight training and endurance exercises, you may experience different brain benefits.
Enjoy a Glass of Wine
If you like a glass of red wine every now and then, science now tells us that your habit may improve your brain health. Researchers found that people who take in more resveratrol — an antioxidant present in dark chocolate, blueberries, and yes, red wine — may boost their ability to create new memories.
Find Ways to Reduce Stress
We’ve all heard that stress can be physically bad for us, and that effect may extend to brain health. Over time, stress can increase levels of the hormone cortisol, which can negatively impact regions of the brain that control short-term memory. To reduce stress, consider getting a massage, meditating, taking regular walks in nature, engaging in activities you enjoy, and spending time with special people.
Eat a Healthy Diet
Enjoy your wine, but be careful what you pair with it, medical experts say. Diets high in simple carbohydrates and sugars may decrease brain power, research has shown. Even among test subjects who did not suffer from glucose intolerance or diabetes, lower levels of blood sugar correlated with better performance on mental tests.
Don’t Give in to Aging
Around the world, some 47 million people live with dementia. June is Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month, and the Alzheimer’s Association wants to raise awareness about the importance of protecting brain health.
Older adults can benefit from many of the same healthy habits that can help people of any age protect their cognitive abilities. Among the actions you can take, consider staying active, eating a healthy diet, and staying socially engaged with friends and loved ones.
Research has found that those healthy habits in combination may have more of an impact than engaging in any single habit. In a two-year clinical trial, researchers found that cognitive decline slowed in at-risk seniors who underwent several types of intervention, including nutritional counseling, social activities, heart-health risk factor management, physical activity and cognitive training.
At any age, keeping your brain healthy is worth the time and effort to build new habits. By getting exercise, eating a healthy diet, reducing stress and choosing activities that mentally challenge you, you take important steps toward preserving your memory and cognitive abilities as you age.