A Neurologist's Tips for Protecting Your Brain From Mental Decline

tips to protect your brain from mental decline
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

The keys to maintaining your physical health and living longer are pretty common sense: work out regularly, eat your veggies, get plenty of sleep, don't smoke, avoid BASE jumping from skyscrapers. Standard stuff.

But your brain needs just as much diligent care as the rest of your body. It's the most important organ you have -- it's what makes you you -- and once it goes into decline, it's pretty tough to correct. To fend off scary late-in-life mental illnesses, such as dementia and Alzheimer's, there are a few specific habits you can adopt today to give your brain the best chance of staying in tip-top shape. Maybe you'll even start remembering where you put your keys. 

Get your butt moving

If all the physical benefits of exercise aren't enticing enough to motivate you, think of it as a tune-up for your brain. "There is ample evidence showing physical activity is beneficial for brain health," says Dr. Jaydeep M. Bhatt, a neurologist at NYU Langone. "If you are cleared by your primary care provider, cardiovascular exercises (activity that increases your heart rate at a safe rate) are ideal."

Although longer periods of aerobic exercise are best for brain health (compared to HIIT and other short-burst workouts), you don't need to be a marathon runner to reap the rewards. Dr. Bhatt says something is better than nothing, so it could be as simple as going for a walk or taking the stairs. Find something that won't make you despise life, and stick with it. 

Eat a Mediterranean(ish) diet

Every body is different; it's why that one annoying friend of yours can eat total garbage all the time and not gain a pound, and others seem to go up a dress size just by looking at a piece of pizza. It's also why some people find weight-loss success on seemingly outrageous diets like keto or intermittent fasting, while others prefer to keep it vegan or low-fat. You do you. 

But there's one eating plan that seems to have the best brain benefits. The Mediterranean diet, which is chock-full of veggies, fruits, healthy fats, and whole grains, has been proven to help cognitive health, especially in older adults.

Dr. Bhatt says diets geared towards patients with high blood pressure are also beneficial for brain function; like the Mediterranean diet, these tend to restrict red meat, salt, sweets, and sugary beverages, and encourage more fresh produce and whole grains. Considering high blood pressure has its own set of brain risks, there's a good argument for sticking to this way of eating for overall health.

Take it easy on the booze

A substance that fuels desire for your ex at 3am and causes you to forget large chunks of time, bad for the brain? Who would've thunk it?! 

"Excess consumption of alcohol can damage brain function and be harmful to brain health," Dr. Bhatt warns. "Those who consume alcohol over a moderate amount consistently can have far-ranging ill effects, including decline in brain function (especially with balance and likelihood to fall) and alcohol withdrawal syndrome, which may include memory disturbance and seizures, among other symptoms." That nature creates such terrible consequences as repayment for some of your best nights is surely one of life's cruelest tricks. 

But here's the good news: Not all alcohol is bad for cognitive health. In fact, a little bit of alcohol (especially red wine) can be good for your overall health, including your brain. But this means sticking to the traditional serving size, about a glass (4oz) a few times a week, Dr. Bhatt says.  

Do something mentally challenging, on purpose

Working out your brain isn't as obvious as working out your body; turns out, those popular brain-training games may be bullshit, and there's no real cut-and-dry rule for how many hours a day you should engage your mind. Still, the evidence is clear -- doing something that challenges you is great for long-term brain health.

"Since there are so many beneficial cognitive activities that may help, the guiding principle is to follow activities you enjoy and learn about them," Dr. Bhatt explains. "Selecting activities you enjoy will increase the chances that you will continue to engage in them over time."

This could be learning a new language, reading about why there are no great white sharks in aquariums, exploiting the carried-interest loophole, or doing Sudoku. It could also be playing a marathon Risk game with your soon-to-be-ex friends; basically anything challenging (so probably not watching a Real Housewives marathon) that you also like doing (seriously, good-bad TV doesn't count). 

Don't play contact sports

You know that whole thing about how former NFL players are being diagnosed with CTE, a degenerative brain disease? It's caused by repeated head trauma, like heavy-impact hits and tackles, and it's serious. Even soccer players run the risk of lasting brain trauma from repeatedly heading the ball. 

"Avoiding head trauma either from falls, car and bicycle accidents, or contact sports is very important for brain health," Dr. Bhatt says. 

Obviously, choosing a career as a professional football or rugby player isn't great for overall brain health. So if you were thinking of doing that, stop now, millions of dollars and fame be damned! Repeated concussions are detrimental, and the negative cognitive effects can last decades after the last injury.

But even everyday common-sense choices can make a difference: Use your seatbelt every time you're in a car, wear a helmet if you ride a bike or rollerblade (do people rollerblade anymore?), and try to limit your time playing contact sports.

Actively manage your stress when it creeps up

You may not think your never-ending to-do lists and verbally abusive boss would have that much of an impact on your health, but chronic stress can lead to a whole host of health problems -- including your brain. 

Being stressed makes you forget stuff, thanks to the influx of the stress hormone cortisol. It can also impact your long-term brain health, especially if chronic stress leads to more serious mental illness such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD.

"Long-term stress management is also important as some mood disorders may affect brain function," Dr. Bhatt says. Here are some helpful ways to combat everyday stressors; if it's so bad that it's impacting your daily life, make sure you visit a mental health professional.

Although it's much harder to quantify mental health than it is physical health (a six-pack and the ability to run 10 miles speak for themselves), taking care of your brain should still be a top priority. Cognitive diseases such as Alzheimer's and dementia are complicated, but the healthy habits you adopt today can impact your long-term brain health for the better.

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Christina Stiehl is a Health and fitness staff writer for Thrillist. This is why she had to give up her pro-rugby dreams. Follow her on Twitter @ChristinaStiehl.