5 Ways to Train Your Brain for Lifelong Mental Fitness
Can’t remember where you left your keys? Don’t worry—despite occasional glitches, it’s possible to sharpen your brain and maintain tip-top mental shape.
Ever find yourself staring into your closet, unable to recall why you’re there or what you needed in the first place? Or why do you sometimes jumble perfectly easy sentences or blank at a pivotal moment during a work meeting? You're young and relatively healthy, so what’s the deal?
Brain blips can be unnerving, but they're completely normal. The good news is that they’re rarely the sign of a declining mind. We tend to think of youth as a time of peak mental capacity, and that once our child-prodigy days are gone, there's no hope left. But, in fact, the human brain is most likely at its best during midlife, when life experiences combine with decades’ worth of neural connections, resulting in peak intelligence and ability.
“We may not learn or recall information quite as quickly as we did in our teens and 20s,” says Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD, the founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas. “But during our 30s, 40s, and 50s, we get better at what matters most: making decisions, synthesizing information, and coming up with big ideas.”
That means, however old you are now, it's never too late to adopt healthy habits that will get your brain in good shape—and even improve with time.
While it’s natural for neurons to fire more slowly with age, stress and anxiety cause people to pathologize perfectly normal experiences, like forgetting an acquaintance’s name (again). "You probably pay attention to the few things that go wrong, but don’t give your brain credit for the thousands of things it did right," Chapman says.
Instead of focusing on the occasional lapse, concentrate on your daily habits. What you do today will play a major role in whether you operate optimally in the present—and whether you develop more serious cognitive deterioration, like dementia, later in life. When it comes to brain function, everyday behavior matters as much as—if not more than—your DNA.
Whether you're 23 or 63, here are five proven ways to gain a mental edge for years to come.
Listening to classical music and doing the crossword every week will bolster your brain, right? Unfortunately, not as much as you think. While these habits are certainly more stimulating than zoning out to another Friends marathon, research suggests that a great way to boost brainpower is through learning something entirely new—either mental, such as learning a new language, or physical, like signing up for a different yoga class or learning how to knit. As we cultivate an unfamiliar skill, our brains get more flexible and form new neural connections that get stronger over time.
According to a 2013 study from the University of Texas at Dallas, older adults who learned cognitively demanding activities, like quilting and digital photography, improved their memories. Those who listened to classical music, watched classic movies, or engaged in social activities, on the other hand, didn’t have the same gains.
Another study from 2020, published in The Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, suggests that regularly deviating from a mundane routine and getting exposure to a diverse array of activities throughout adulthood can boost cognitive functioning and decelerate the signs of cognitive aging, such as memory loss and declines in information processing.
Take your learning to the next level by using your brain for what it does best: fusing existing and new information. “It will repay you by strengthening its complex neural networks,” says Chapman. For example, you know how to read and love to read—but now take your favorite cerebral pastime one step further and get more mental bang for your buck (so to speak). For example, next time you finish a great book, spend a little extra time writing a Goodreads review, blog post, or digital journal entry for your eyes only (a Word or Google doc will do). You might be surprised at what you come up with while mulling it over again. Or reach for a pen and your journal: Studies show that writing by hand, rather than typing, improves information processing as well as the ability to remember what you’re writing about.
Your brain, as much as your body, is affected by what you eat and drink. Thankfully, making things less complicated, good brain nutrition looks a lot like body nutrition. Notable research from Rush University and the Harvard School of Public Health, published in 2015, found that middle-aged and older adults who adhered to an eating plan called the Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet were able to decelerate cognitive decline. In fact, they scored the equivalent of seven and a half years younger on cognitive tests after one year of eating that way. According to a Rush University news release, “[this] diet is based on the most compelling research on the foods and nutrients that affect brain health….As the name suggests, the MIND diet is a hybrid of the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets.”
Like the Mediterranean diet, the MIND diet emphasizes nuts, beans, whole grains, poultry, and olive oil. But unlike the former plan, it calls for consuming leafy greens daily and at least two weekly servings of berries, as both are rich in brain-boosting antioxidants.
Take this study, for example: Adults who did aerobic exercise regularly for four weeks—and exercised the morning that they took memory tests—scored higher than did regular exercisers who skipped their workout on test day, according to a 2012 study from Dartmouth College. Exercise’s stress-thwarting effects may be partially responsible: “Stress is toxic to the brain,” Chapman explains. “It releases the hormone cortisol onto the hippocampus, where memories are stored.” That can make you momentarily forgetful and may weaken neural connections over time, increasing the odds of dementia.
All that said, don’t miss out on regular sweat sessions when things aren’t especially stressful. Along with its more talked-about physical health benefits, keeping up a fitness routine is a lifelong way to boost mental wellbeing and focus.
Fact: Adults need a solid seven to nine hours of sleep every night to reap the full mental and physical health benefits of sleep. Sleep is crucial for the brain: storing short-term and long-term memories, maintaining and improving cognitive dexterity, processing emotions, and strengthening and repairing neural connections—to name a few things that happen upstairs while you snooze. “The brain processes information and consolidates ideas while you sleep,” says Chapman. ”And most of that appears to happen between the sixth and eighth hours.” Short-change your sleep for just one night, and it can take several nights of solid slumber to return to your sparkling, coherent self. And chronically short-changed sleep, the effects of which can accumulate exponentially over the years, has been linked to mental health concerns from Alzheimer’s disease to depression and anxiety.
Do you have trouble falling asleep? Consult a doctor or sleep specialist before turning to sleep aids. Prescription sleeping pills, although safe for occasional use, contain active ingredients that can slow down brain waves, making you feel groggy the next day. Over-the-counter (OTC) sleep medications are dicey, too. Most contain diphenhydramine, an ingredient that’s been linked to short-term cognitive impairment (that hangover-esque feeling). Worse yet, people who used the OTC medications regularly for several years were at an increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease later in life, according to a 2015 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine. To avoid the downsides of sleep deprivation, see a sleep specialist if you struggle to catch enough Z’s every night.