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6 Ways to Improve Brain Health

Illustration: Bee Johnson

Learn how to sustain your mental reserves with these six brain-boosting lifestyle tips.

You misplace your keys and forget people's names, and you swear your memory's slipping. And you're right, it is—but likely not as much as you think. You can actually chalk it up, at least in part, to normal aging processes: Because the brain shrinks naturally with age, brain cells don't work as efficiently: "By age 45, the average person has slightly more memory issues than they did when they were in their 20s," says Gary W. Small, MD, professor of psychiatry and director of the UCLA Longevity Center and author of 2 Weeks to a Younger Brain.

"Many things about brain health improve as we age."

However, while some aspects of memory decline, many things about brain health improve. Take, for instance, vocabulary: A study in Psychological Science of more than 48,000 individuals found that vocabulary peaks much later in life than it once did. How much later? Roughly retirement age, after which it may still continue to increase for a little while, says study coauthor Laura Germine, PhD, a researcher at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and president of The Many Brains Project. Her other studies have found that the ability to sustain attention and concentration improves as you age, as does something called social cue reading, which is your ability to pick up thoughts and emotions from looking at a person's face. You also get better at problem solving and something called crystallized intelligence, which essentially means the information you've accumulated throughout the years increases, Small says. Anxiety, another memory foe, also decreases as you age.

So when that next birthday rolls around, don't get hung up on having forgotten where you put your cell phone or not being able to recall a certain word. Instead, celebrate your enhanced mental prowess.

6 Ways to Improve Brain Health

Age isn't the only factor that affects your memory. Other variables may also be sabotaging that mental recall, and some are so subtle you may not even realize they're affecting you. The good news? "We all have more control than we realize when it comes to brain health," Small says. Here are six changes you can make to protect your memory as you age.

Illustration: Bee Johnson

1. Quell stress.
You can't live an entirely stress-free life, but try tackling at least one source of stress for your brain health. Do yoga, meditate, log a sweat, limit multitasking, laugh more, get your restful sleep, try acupuncture, cut the clutter in your life, and spend time with positive people. Finally, don't be scared to ask for help.

2. Keep your weight in check.
"Being overweight can lead to conditions like diabetes and vascular disease, which increase the risk for Alzheimer's," says Jeremy Coplan, MD, professor of psychiatry at the State University of New York in Brooklyn. While it's wise to keep tabs on BMI, aiming for 25 or lower, Coplan also advises keeping abdominal fat (a dangerous type of fat that can cause inflammation in the body, leading to all sorts of health issues) to a minimum by cutting the junk food and committing to regular exercise.

Illustration: Bee Johnson

3. Lower your cholesterol.
A study in JAMA Neurology of patients older than 70 showed that those with high levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and low levels of HDL (good) cholesterol had more amyloid protein in their brain cells, which may contribute to Alzheimer's, researchers suggest. To help lower cholesterol, the American Heart Association suggests a diet focused on produce, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and nuts; limiting red meat and sugary drinks and foods; being physically active; and not smoking.

4. Control your blood sugar.
Elevated blood sugar levels damage blood vessels in the brain and impair function in parts of the brain needed for memory, researchers say. Lifestyle choices can help lower blood glucose levels: Avoid becoming obese, especially in midlife; eat a diet high in fiber, vegetable, protein, and whole grains; and get regular physical activity. If you're 55 or older or have weight problems, you should be getting your fasting glucose and HbA1C levels checked regularly.

5. Pass on fat.
Monitor high-fat foods, especially if you have a genetic predisposition to obesity and your body is shaped like an apple. "Central obesity, or being apple shaped, is more closely linked with risk of age-related cognitive impairment than being pear shaped," says Alexis M. Stranahan, PhD, assistant professor at Georgia Regents University in Augusta.

Illustration: Bee Johnson

6. Choose your medications wisely.
According to a report published in JAMA Internal Medicine, people with the heaviest use of anticholinergic drugs, which treat conditions like overactive bladder, allergies, depression, and insomnia, had a 10% greater risk of getting dementia sooner than people not taking the drugs. Over-the-counter meds that list diphenhydramine, doxylamine, or chlorpheniramine on their label are considered strong anticholinergics. If you are currently taking these drugs, don't stop without speaking to your doctor, but do discuss the risks and benefits of continued use. And ask your physician or pharmacist how to avoid over-the-counter products with anticholinergic effects.