How a smart diet and exercise keep your mind sharp for a lifetime.
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Credit: Illustration: Shaw Nielsen

Want to stay on your mental game well into your golden years? Then take good care of the rest of your body. That’s because it turns out that the same smart diet and exercise strategies that help prevent heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer are great brain boosters, too.

“People have long dismissed the brain as being this separate organ, but the brain’s health is integrated with the rest of the body,” says Rebecca Katz, MS, author of The Healthy Mind Cookbook: Big-Flavor Recipes to Enhance Brain Function, Mood, Memory, and Mental Clarity. She points to brain “fog” and depression, which are common symptoms of autoimmune disorders, such as fibromyalgia and Hashimoto’s disease, as just two examples of the brain-body connection.

And there’s growing evidence to suggest that the kitchen—and the gym—hold the keys to clear thinking and a better mood. Here’s how to build a strong brain.

Credit: Illustration: Shaw Nielsen

You already know about the heart-healthy benefits of the Mediterranean diet, but the latest research suggests it’s also good for your brain. Take it from Martha Clare Morris, ScD, a nutritional epidemiologist at Rush University in Chicago. She’s been researching the MIND diet—a hybrid of the Mediterranean diet and Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH)—to reduce age-related cognitive decline and the risk of Alzheimer’s disease among more than 1,000 volunteers in the Memory and Aging Project.

Her findings: Those who adhered to the MIND diet showed significantly slower cognitive declines—the equivalent of being 7.5 years younger—than those who didn’t. Her team has also found that following the MIND diet may help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by up to 54%.

Scientists are still figuring out how diet helps (or harms) the brain, but they do know exercise is as important for mental function as it is for physical. “It so changes your brain chemistry that we can measure it,” says John Medina, PhD, a developmental molecular biologist and author of Brain Rules. This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint, he adds, noting that our ancestors’ constant activity as they hunted and gathered was key to our species’ brain development.

It still is. Movement helps produce a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which Medina likens to cognitive “Miracle-Gro” that helps new brain cells form while keeping existing neurons young. “It’s as close to a magic bullet as you can get,” he says.

How much and what type of exercise nourishes your noggin? Do at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week, such as “simply walking too fast to sing,” says Medina. And when you really need to be on your game mentally, work out first.

Credit: Illustration: Shaw Nielsen

Emerging research is also working to tease out the connection between the brain and the gut, which may influence memory, mood, and cognition in a variety of ways. “There’s a whole set of neurotransmitters in the gut, which has been called the ‘second brain,’ that are related to the neurotransmitters in the brain,” says Katz. “If your gut is unhappy, then your brain is unhappy.”

Unhealthy gut bacteria may trigger bodywide inflammation, which is linked to everything from autoimmune diseases, such as diabetes and arthritis, to dementia. “When you have systemic inflammation, it’s going to affect the brain,” says Katz.

Eating probiotic foods, including fermented fare like sauerkraut and kimchi, fosters beneficial gut bacteria to help tame inflammation. “Any time you’re putting good probiotics in your system, you’re doing a great thing for your brain and your body overall,” she says.