Your brain can get older and wiser, provided you take good care of it.

By Samantha Zabell
Updated April 15, 2015
Brain made from pulleys
Credit: Yasu + Junko

Aging doesn’t have to mean bad things for your brain—in fact, there are plenty of ways to counteract the effect that age-related changes can have on your mind and your memory. In the most recent Institute of Medicine report, Cognitive Aging: Progress in Understanding and Opportunities for Action, researchers examined and analyzed the process of cognitive aging and how these changes can negatively affect memory, problem solving, learning, and attention. To combat this aging process, the researchers recommended several lifestyle changes to promote brain health:

1. Exercise regularly. The researchers identified this as one of the most important factors in maintaining a healthy brain. Previous research has found that regular physical activity is linked with an increase in gray matter in the hippocampus, an area of the brain that is crucial to memory. Exercise can also reduce stress, boost creativity, and bolster self-esteem.

2. Stop smoking. People who smoke are at higher risk for cardiovascular problems, like heart attacks, which in turn is linked to strokes, memory loss, and cognitive dysfunction, according to the Stroke Association.

3. Review medications that might affect the brain. According to a release about the report, “a number of medications can have a negative effect—temporary or long term—on cognitive function when used alone or in combination with other medication.”

4. Remain “socially and intellectually active.” Harvard Medical School reports that social ties can improve mental performance and self-confidence.

5. Get some sleep. A good night’s rest has so many positive effects—while lack of sleep might actually shrink the brain, according to one study. A more recent study found that middle-aged adults who were getting plenty of sleep had higher mental function and better memory years later.

“We are only really beginning to understand how the brain changes with age,” Victor Dzau, president of the Institute of Medicine, said in a statement. “As the population of older Americans grows, so will the effects of cognitive aging on society. By calling attention to this issue, we can learn more about the risk and protective factors and needed research so older adults can better maintain their cognitive health to the fullest extent possible.”