Many factors influence how our brain ages as we get older, but fortunately we can control some of them. By developing new healthy habits and committing to them for the long haul, we can keep our brains young and slow the onset of cognitive decline.
Proof of this comes from neuroscientist Brian Pennie. He spent 15 years of his life as a heroin addict before overcoming his addiction. Since then, he’s published a book, become a university lecturer in Ireland and is earning a PhD.
What makes Pennie of interest in the study of brain aging is that he had his brain scanned in 2013 as part of an imaging study while in detox. Then, in 2018, he had it scanned. Amazingly, the new image showed he had not only reversed signs of aging in five years by living a healthy lifestyle, but also had a brain 10 years younger than people his own age.
Researchers determine the predicted age of a brain by looking at grey matter density. Lower density is associated with cognitive decline and increased risk of dementia.
Pennie’s experience mirrored research findings. Harvard Health reported that studies show addressing age-related cognitive decline by changing habits can lead to improved brain function. Psychologists also list studies that show healthy habits slow the aging process in your brain and body.
As with many cognitive issues, at least some part of the solution rests with you. The question that trips up many people is knowing where to start. The following provides some options for age-reversing habits you can incorporate into your life right now.
Get Exercise and Improve Your Diet
The simple advice remains some of the best. A study published in the journal Neurology found that formerly sedentary people who started exercising three times a week (walking) improved executive function and lowered predicted brain age by nine years in just six months. The effect increased when people ate foods that can lower dementia risk. Other studies have shown that exercises such as hiking can have an even bigger impact on brain health.
Meditation and Self-Observation
Studies have shown that one cause of aging in the brain is the “wandering mind,” when your thoughts drift without pattern from one thought to another. This can lead to ruminating on past incidents or worrying too much about the future. This process comes from the default mode network (DMN) of the brain. But if you practice meditation, it can lower activity in the DMN and slow the aging process.
Mindfulness simply means the practice of staying in the moment throughout your day, not worrying about the past or future. Doing this outside of a meditation session may seem difficult, but people improve in this area with practice. The amygdala is the portion of the brain associated with stress and fear, and can “hijack” the brain and kick in your fight or flight response, even if the danger is only in your mind. Studies have shown that by practicing mindfulness, the amygdala may shrink in size.
A good place to start reading about mindfulness are books by Zen practitioners such as Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
Get Good Sleep
A healthy amount of sleep goes a long way toward maintaining good cognitive health. The best move is to develop good sleep habits, including going to bed and getting up around the same time each day and avoiding caffeine or food too close to bedtime. Most adults need at least seven hours of sleep a night to adequately rest the brain.
Reduce Negative Influences
It’s difficult to cut down on negative thoughts when immersed in negativity. Many people find they can reduce the amount of negativity in their lives by reducing time spent with negative people. It’s also helpful for many to cut down on time spent on social media and reading or watching stress-inducing negative news. This is important as negative thinking can increase the risk of dementia.
Exercise Your Mind
There’s plenty of wonderful “brain food” out there to devour. Classic and contemporary works of literature. Brilliant films and pieces of music. Essays and opinion articles that make you look at life differently. Many studies have found a stimulated mind is a healthier mind. By reading and experiencing new things, as well as keeping active with puzzles and games, you can slow age-related cognitive decline.
In all these areas, keep in mind that consistency is what counts. As with physical exercise, you can’t change your brain in a day or a week. But small changes practiced every day eventually lead to big results.