Firstly, I’m not a fan of those brain-training games – I don’t think they do anything at all.
Keeping your brain healthy isn’t about doing weird quizzes, it’s about living a healthy lifestyle that boosts it as a by-product.
Work Up A Sweat
Variety is important and, when you exercise, you use your brain in a different way: thinking about where you’re placing your feet when you’re running, tactics for team sports or remembering choreography in dance classes.
When we say exercise benefits your body, we include your brain within that. A US study found that regular aerobic exercise – the sort that gets you sweaty and out of breath – boosts the size of the part of the brain involved in verbal memory and learning. It also has psychological benefits, improving mood and helping with depression.
Sleep Yourself Smart
Sleep is probably the most important thing you can do for your brain because it sifts through the data of the day and stores it as firm memories, or discards it while you’re asleep. If you don’t get enough rest, your brain can’t work optimally.
We know that people who are sleep deprived struggle with attention, and remembering things. Physically the body can get by, but the brain really suffers.
A good seven to eight hours a night is great, but you’ll know if you’re getting enough as you’ll feel well-rested.
Balance Your Diet
There’s a lot of talk about eating good fats to boost your brain, but it’s not that simple. The evidence for omega-3s in isolation isn’t overwhelming, but when you eat omega-3s from things like oily fish, nuts and olive oil as part of a Mediterranean diet, it boosts brain health.
That’s because it’s a balance of all kinds of things interacting together to help your brain. Your brain uses complex carbs like brown bread, brown rice and wholegrain pasta for fuel, so don’t cut those out, and colourful fruit and veg protect cells – including brain cells. Your brain is about 80% water, so stay hydrated if you want to stay sharp, too.
Stress is terrible for memory and learning. There’s been a lot of research into it, and in the short term stress dents our ability to think clearly, but long-term continued stress and anxiety can impair your memory and has even been linked to increased risk for developing dementia.
Finding ways to try to reduce stress is really important for handling all aspects of health. It can be anything that takes your mind away from whatever’s causing you stress, from walking to cooking, colouring-in to dancing.
Twenty minutes of mindfulness has also been found to help boost your thinking skills, and there are plenty of apps to help you.
If we’re trying to focus on one thing and notifications, buzzes and pings keep popping up, it distracts us and our brain doesn’t work as effectively. Some recent research showed the more time teenagers spend splitting their attention between various devices like phones, TV and tablets, the lower their exam results in maths and English.
More time spent multitasking between different types of media has also been linked to having a poorer working memory. Using multiple screens simultaneously, like having the TV on in the background while you are texting, overloads our brains, so that we can’t focus.
If you need to do something important, switch your attention solely to that.
Learn New Skills
Learning anything that requires your brain to really work at it, from a new language or musical instrument to life drawing or photography, is great for your memory. It’s far better than doing quizzes and puzzles, and you end up with a useful skill!
Research shows that activities where you learn a mentally demanding skill are better at improving cognitive function and keeping your brain young than less demanding activities, like word puzzles. Doing something unfamiliar is stimulating, and your brain likes to be stimulated.
Get Your Vitamins
Recently a drink created by US scientists was found to have impressive (quoted as remarkable, no less) anti-ageing properties that could potentially prevent and even reverse massive brain cell loss.
But there’s nothing magical about it! It simply contains a blend of 30 vitamins and minerals as well as green tea extract and cod liver oil. If you eat a balanced, varied diet, you’ll get those benefits too.