Keeping your mind in check goes far beyond brain teasers and sudoku. In today’s stressful world, the need to keep your mind healthy, focused and strong has never seemed more important, whatever your age and stage of life.
Daily elements we face in our lives - such as pollution, household chemicals, pesticides and eating processed foods can all take a toll, so can a build-up of bacteria, viruses and parasites and the cumulative effects of the electro-magnetic stress from the white goods, computers, phones and Wi-Fi that surround us. Add in the state of your spine, your ears, eyes and teeth, and the overwhelm becomes – overwhelming!
With cases of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia increasingly prevalent, and with no pharmaceutical cure yet available, it's down to us to optimise our chances of keeping our brains in tip top shape deep into our older years.
Reassuringly, neuroscience, the rapidly growing science of the mind, shows that brain cells can be grown at any stage of life. It’s never too late. Improving your neural circuits and boosting your brain can be very simple – and inexpensive to boot.
How to boost brain health in 2022
1. Use the opposite hand
Using your opposite hand instead of the one you are comfortable with can help your brain to integrate its two hemispheres and develop new neural pathways and connections. Studies using brain scanners show that when you use your stronger hand just one side of your brain is engaged. When you use the opposite non-dominant hand, however, both hemispheres light up. Brush your teeth with the opposite hand, or use a different hand to control your computer mouse. Wash the dishes differently. Switch hands and switch on your brain's unused pathways.
2. Brain Boosting Aromatherapy
Aromatherapy can be a powerful way to reboot your brain and improve brain function. Scents in specific essential oils stimulate parts of the brain that control memories and emotion. In 2013, Northumbria University carried out a study with a group of elderly participants and found that merely being in a room diffused with the smell of rosemary boosted memory scores by 15 per cent.
3. Exercise regularly
Thirty minutes of moderate exercise daily has been shown to increase the production of new synapses (the junction between two nerve cells) in your brain and studies have demonstrated that regular cardiovascular exercise that elevates your heart rate is one of the best ways to encourage neuroplasticity in the brain.
HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) stimulates BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), the ‘brain fertilizer’ protein that triggers new brain cell growth. BDNF increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain, and boosts the mitochondria in your neurons, the tiny ‘batteries’ that power your brain. Regular exercise – even half an hour three times a week – can increase its levels by 300 per cent. People who exercise have been shown to have less deterioration in their brains than people who don’t.
You can also lift weights to improve your memory. A study from 2019, published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, showed that weight training can improve your ability to think and reduce, or even reverse, aspects of age-related memory loss.
Scientists injected rats with a substance known to cause brain inflammation, similar to the effects of ageing or early stage dementia. They then split the group into two: half the rats had tiny weights attached to them while they had to climb up ladders to reach a treat. The weight was gradually increased, effectively weight training them.
A third group was the control group: they had neither brain inflammation nor weights.
All the rats were then put into a maze, which they had to complete several times. In the first few tests, the control animals were faster and more accurate than those whose brains had been impaired. However, after a little practice, the weight trained animals caught up to and even improved upon the speed of the control group. The brains of the weight-trained rats were found to be full of enzymes and genetic markers associated with creating new neurons and increasing the brain’s ability to grow and adapt.
4. Listen to Binaural Beats
Listening to a form of sound wave therapy called binaural beats boosts the main hormones responsible for brain health in older age, DHEA and melatonin, by between 50 and 100 per cent and reduces cortisol, the stress hormone, in half.
5. Shake-up your routine
Ever find yourself going completely blank mid-sentence? We all experience a descent of brain fog once in a while. Sometimes it’s due to a bad night’s sleep; other times the pub is to blame. But one thing you might not have considered is that a lack of novelty could be leading to your fuzzy thinking.
Experiencing new things isn’t just for the adrenaline-seeking junkie. When you forego the same old routine and search out novel and exciting experiences, your brain gets stimulated, which leads to a rush of dopamine and adrenaline.
Scientists now know that seeking out new things can actually lead to the growth of brain neurons. This is thought to be because of a protein called Brain-Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF), which improves neural functioning. Levels of BDNF increase in stimulating environments.
That doesn’t have to mean bungee jumping or swimming with sharks, if that’s not your ticket. It can be small, subtle everyday changes that break you out of the same old routine and jolt your brain into thinking about something new. For example, try listening to a different genre of radio station, or take a completely new route home from work.
6. Start running or walking
A 2017 study from the New Mexico Highlands University found that ‘foot impact’, the striking of your foot on the ground, increases blood flow to the brain. So, although cycling or rowing can increase oxygen levels to your brain, walking and running (which has an even stronger foot strike) had additional benefits, building grey matter volume and strengthening overall cognitive skills.
Similarly, you can power up your brain before big meetings by going for a ten-minute walk. Stanford University researchers Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz asked people to think up ideas while sitting at their desk, or after walking at a comfortable pace on a treadmill. Their findings, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition in 2014, found that the walkers had increased creativity, came up with better ideas and were more able to concentrate than those who stayed at their desks.
“There is a growing body of research that shows moderate exercise, even something as simple as a quick walk, sharpens our concentration and helps us come up with solutions to problems, or think up great ideas, during a working day,” says personal trainer Matt Roberts.
“Our working culture means many of us stay chained to our desks in the belief this makes us work harder. But you’ll work better if you take regular walks.”
7. Spinal checks
Adjustments by osteopaths and chiropractors can improve brain function, and especially the functioning of your pre-frontal cortex which controls decision making, focus and intelligence. If you are suffering from brain fog, anxiety, depression or frequent headaches, your back may be a good place to start.
8. Get the recommended amount of sleep
How many hours do you sleep each night? Too little or too much and your brain simply doesn’t work properly. In one 2017 study of more than 9,000 people, less than six hours sleep or more than eight hours sleep resulted in a reduction of memory function and decision-making ability. Instead, 7-7.5 hours seems to be optimal.
9. Multitask new things
Picking up a new skill is never as easy as it looks – and that’s especially true as we get older. In general, children exhibit more neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to grow and change) than adults so they tend to be better at picking up new skills. Think about toddlers: in the space of just a few short months a baby can learn to walk, talk, and eat solid food.
This concept gave Rachel Wu, a psychologist at the University of California, an idea. In 2019, she and her fellow researchers hypothesised that if we learned in a manner similar to toddlers, we might be able to pick up skills more quickly. Which is to say, if we attempted to learn multiple skills at the same time, we would pick them up faster.
Wu and her team asked adults between the ages of 58 and 86 to simultaneously take three to five different classes for three months, resulting in a total of 15 hours of learning time each week, similar to what a university student might expect.
The participants did cognitive assessments before, during, and after the studies to test their working memory, episodic memory, and cognitive control. After just a month and a half of studying, the participants increased their cognitive abilities to the point that they were getting similar scores to people 30 years younger than themselves.
"The take-home message is that older adults can learn multiple new skills at the same time, and doing so may improve their cognitive functioning," noted Wu. "The studies provide evidence that intense learning experiences akin to those faced by younger populations are possible in older populations, and may facilitate gains in cognitive abilities."
10. Get your ears checked
Research has shown that there is a connection between hearing loss and brain decline and the development of dementia. In 2015, the University of Colorado found that when hearing loss occurred, although the brain rewired itself, handing the areas that usually deal with hearing over to sections that process touch or vision, the hearing parts of the brain were considerably weakened. Turn on the hearing aids, however, and a neuroplastic adjustment takes place within your brain that reverses any damage.
11. Drink more water
Your brain is 73 per cent water and even loss of fluid equal to 2 per cent of your body weight has been shown to affect decision making and create problems with focus and memory. 75 per cent of us are regularly dehydrated, which can trigger depression, chronic fatigue and attention deficit disorder (ADD).
12. Book in for an online yoga session and breathe correctly
Pranayama breathing will oxygenate your brain and clear your nasal passages. A 2021 study on the effect of oral breathing on cognitive activity showed that the functional connection decreased a significant amount during a working memory task in oral breathing rather than nasal breathing.
Similarly, did you know that meditating lights up your frontal lobes – the area for problem solving and impulse control - and develops the areas of the brain related to attention and sensory processing? Meditators have higher volumes of brain tissue, reduced brain inflammation, well balanced neurotransmitters and less stress.
13. Stimulate your tongue
The tongue is where two of the most important meridians in the body meet. Brain fog and memory issues can be treated by boosting energy flow in the area with a series of acupuncture sessions. Stimulating the tongue with an electric pulse has also been shown to activate the neural network in the brain in charge of balance, and can help multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s and stroke patients improve their muscle control.
14. Train to be less absent minded
Do you ever find yourself doing something completely absent-minded? You pour cold water in your tea after forgetting to turn the kettle on? You start scrolling through Twitter and forget to pick the kids up from school?
These are what cognitive scientists would call 'lapses in executive function'. Executive function is the ability to consciously control our thoughts, emotions, and actions to achieve our goals. It’s basically the exact opposite of being absent-minded.
Having strong executive function is important to our lives because those who have it are generally more switched on, and research has shown it can be an indicator of good social skills, academic achievement, mental and physical health, making money, saving money and even staying out of jail.
So researchers are keen to understand how we can improve our executive function. The more they learn, the more difficult they understand it to be. For example, if you do a lot of puzzles, you might be very focused when completing puzzles, but it doesn’t necessarily make you any less prone to absent-mindedness in the real world.
Speaking in a TEDx Talk in 2018, cognitive scientist Sabine Doebel shared her findings that executive function could be affected by context. In her experiments, she invited children to complete delayed gratification tests: either they could have one marshmallow now or two marshmallows later. Some waited, others didn’t.
Then she told the kids that they were on a certain team and their team (who they’d never met) was either more or less likely to wait. She found that the results skewed to match the fictional odds of the team. And the kids on the team more likely to wait used more executive function strategies to help them wait.
This led Doebel to the conclusion that you can improve executive function with context. If you want to focus while learning something, surround yourself with others doing the same. Or teach yourself strategies to use executive function in the particular context of what you’re doing, like putting your phone away before reading, or performing a certain action every time before practicing a skill.
15. Experiment with light therapy
The Vielight 810 is a small machine that attaches to your nose and sends a near infrared light up into your brain, pulsing at 10 Hz, the frequency that repairs brain cells and neural networks. Photons of light go deep into the brain’s ventral areas where dopamine, which controls sleep, is made, and also triggering the release of serotonin, the calming neurotransmitter.
16. Learn to Cross Crawl
Cross Crawl exercises use opposite sides of the body. For example, on all fours lift your right arm and left leg, then reverse. Exercises like this strengthen communication signals between your body and brain, boosting brain function in the process. The movement fires up neural pathways in the right and left side of your brain at the same time, building a connective path between the two sides of the brain and boosting clarity of thought, focus and spatial awareness.
Like paying regular instalments into your pension scheme, adding ‘Brain Gym’ time into your weekly schedule is an essential long-term investment in your future; top up your hours, little by little, and you can relax in your retirement, reaping the benefits of your earlier efforts when you most need them.
17. Change your diet
Research published in 2021 by Harvard University Medical School found that certain foods are linked to better brain power. While it is important to stress that there is no fast-track method to prevent cognitive decline nor any magic food that can boost brain health, following a healthy diet of green, leafy vegetables; fatty fish; berries and walnuts is your best strategy of keeping your brain sharp as you age.
Leafy greens contain healthy nutrients like vitamin K, lutein, folate, and beta carotene which can help slow down cognitive decline, while flavonoids found in berries can help improve memory.
Fatty fish are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been linked to lower blood levels of beta-amyloid which is the protein that forms damaging clumps in the brains of those suffering from Alzheimer's Disease. Walnuts, on the other hand, are high in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which also lower blood pressure and keep arteries clean.
Additionally, you need to start eating a brainy breakfast. Breakfast has long been dubbed the most important meal of the day, and with good reason.
According to Ashford and St Peter's Hospitals, people who eat breakfast are more alert and perform better in tests than people who skip it. This is because eating breakfast elevates blood glucose levels which, in turn, helps the brain function more efficiently.
The fact is that the brain is a bit of an energy hog. Despite making up just 2 per cent of overall body weight on average, the brain swallows up 20 per cent of total calorie intake in order to go about performing its functions. So it stands to reason that putting in more calories would allow it to function better.
However, not any food will do. Different parts of the brain respond differently to foods. For example, the frontal cortex is particularly sensitive to glucose levels; too much or too little can send it out of whack.
So, with that in mind, here are a few ideas of different breakfast foods that might give your brain a morning boost.
Eggs: Rich in vitamins B6 and B12, which are tied to brain health, they’re also one of the best sources of choline, which the body uses to create acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood and memory. Choline is linked to better memory and brain function.
Salmon: it’s filled with Omega-3, a fatty acid which the brain uses to build new cells and nerve cells.
Blueberries: Their antioxidant properties help prevent oxidative stress and inflammation, two conditions that may contribute to brain aging and neurodegenerative diseases. They may also improve communication between brain cells and boost memory too.
18. Give your brain a dopamine fast
Dopamine is a chemical created by the brain that is involved in feelings of happiness, motivation, attention and decision-making. It’s a complicated little thing.
In general, the things that cause our brains to give us a hit of dopamine are things that bring us joy. Looking at pictures of cute dogs on Instagram, watching our favourite movie, biting into delicious food, listening to a good song, having sex, etc.
Which rather begs the question: why would anyone want to take a fast from dopamine?
Well, the thinking behind this Silicon Valley trend (try to contain your eye-rolls) is that dopamine is like an addiction for the brain. It gets a ‘hit’ of dopamine from seeing that picture of a cute dog – and then it seeks to replicate that by searching for more cute dog pictures. Soon, you've procrastinated away the afternoon. So, the idea goes, by fasting from dopamine, we can become more aware and attentive to our surroundings.
How, you ask? Well, as with most Silicon Valley trends, it’s a very basic concept taken to extremes: no electronics, no reading books or magazines, no sex or masturbation, no food, no talking, no music or podcasts, no coffee or stimulants. The idea is to do this for a full 24 hours before slowly reintroducing dopamine back into your life.
19. Get your eyes checked
When your sight weakens, so does your brain processing power, which relies on your eyes to feed it precise information. If your eyes are not in top condition the messages your brain picks up will be similarly fuzzy, and your brain’s responses will be far slower than they should be.
20. Learn to think more elastically
The term ‘elastic thinking’ was coined by US physicist Leonard Mlodinow, who believes that we can open ourselves up to creative insights by loosening control of the filters in our brain that block unusual associations from reaching our conscious mind.
Theories suggest that deep within the unconscious mind, the left and right hemispheres of the brain battle it out to get their ideas accepted by the jury of the executive brain (or pre-frontal cortex). The associations that get waved through tend to be the most straight-forward based on the context, which is why they are usually correct.
Mlodinow has an example of how our brains tend to jump to the most obvious conclusion. Take the statement, “The cooking teacher said the children made bad snacks.” The context of "cooking teacher" tells your brain that the appropriate meaning of “made bad snacks” has to do with the creation of food. Replace “cooking teacher” with “cannibal” however, and the context changes: the same words (“made bad snacks”) immediately have a very different interpretation. Yet the writer of the sentence could conceivably have meant that the cooking teacher was a cannibal.
Sometimes it’s only by opening ourselves up to these unlikely, or “remote” associations, says Mlodinow, that we can get the correct — or most exciting — meaning. And that's how we can channel the power of elastic thinking.
This article is kept updated with the latest advice.