With researchers clamoring to unlock the mystery of what causes memory loss and related cognitive difficulties, it’s easy to assume that some elusive discovery will banish these brain problems forever.
The truth is, the key to a better brain—sharper mental focus, improved memory, clearer thinking, balanced emotions, and a lower risk for dementia and stroke—is largely within our control now.
Based on the body of research we have analyzed, nine out of 10 cases of Alzheimer’s disease could be prevented by changes in lifestyle—what you do day by day…day after day—to improve the health of brain cells (neurons) and build more connections between them.
After 15 years of treating thousands of patients with Alzheimer’s disease and its frequent precursor known as mild cognitive impairment (MCI), we’ve devised a simple one-week plan that will help you form habits to protect and enhance your brain in the weeks, months and years to come. Better-brain lifestyle strategies to adopt…
Day #1: Don’t rely on supplements to protect your brain. There are only two supplements we think are worth taking for brain health—an omega-3 supplement with at least 250 mg daily of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), the most important omega-3 fatty acid for brain health…and 500 micrograms (mcg) daily of vitamin B-12, which is linked to reduced risk for Alzheimer’s.*
Our recommendation: Opt for an algae-derived omega-3 supplement over fish oil—it is highly absorbable and toxin- and pollutant-free.
Day #2: Add a “superstar” food to your diet. A whole-food, plant-based diet reduces brain-damaging inflammation and oxidation…protects the small arteries of the brain that are damaged by saturated fats and cholesterol…supplies the brain with the nutrients and phytochemicals it needs for optimal functioning…and minimizes or eliminates refined carbohydrates and other processed foods—all of which weaken neurons and their connections.
Among plant foods, mushrooms are a surprising superstar. In fact, a study published in Phytotherapy Research found that older people with MCI had improved cognitive function after 16 weeks of taking dried mushroom powder. Plus, mushrooms deliver umami—the pleasant, savory taste found mainly in cooked meat, making them a great meat substitute.
Our recommendation: Include mushrooms in your meals at least two to three times a week—button mushrooms, portobello, cremini, porcini, maitake, shiitake, you name it.
If you aren’t able to follow a strictly plant-based diet, a Mediterranean diet or MIND diet, which focuses on leafy greens, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, and fish and poultry, is advised.
Day #3: Choose the right fats. More than 60% of the brain is comprised of fat, and the brain constantly uses those fats in the process of rebuilding neurons and their support structures. But for optimal brain health, you need to consume the right kind of fats—not saturated fat, for example, but plant-based fats, such as the mono- and polyunsaturated fats found in nuts, seeds, avocados and olives.
Omega-3 fatty acids—found in nuts, seeds, marine algae and fish—are especially critical for brain health. Note: We don’t recommend fish because it often has high levels of mercury and other toxic chemicals that are bad for the brain. If you must eat fish, stick with small, low-mercury fish such as sardines and anchovies.
Our recommendation: As part of a plant-based diet, get plenty of good fats and limit bad fats. To do this…
• Minimize or eliminate sweets…processed junk food…sugary cereals…baked packaged goods…chips and other salty snacks…processed white bread products…meats, processed meats and poultry…and canned soups.
• Maximize fresh and frozen vegetables and fruits…beans and lentils…100% whole grains…seeds and nuts…brain-healthy oils, such as olive and avocado…low–calorie, plant-based sweeteners, such as date sugar and stevia…nondairy plant milks…and spices (turmeric is particularly brain protective at a dose of one teaspoon daily—consult your doctor before adding turmeric to your daily diet if you have a chronic condition, such as a gallbladder problem…or take medication, such as a diabetes drug).
Day #4: Protect sleep. During sleep, we “consolidate” memory—turning daily experience into long-term memories. Sleep also detoxifies the brain when “janitor” brain cells (microglia) are activated to remove toxins that accumulate during the day.
Our recommendation: Aim for seven to eight hours of sleep a night.
Avoid foods that are particularly disruptive to sleep, such as sugary foods, high-fat foods, and chocolate and other caffeine-containing foods. Stop eating at least three hours before going to sleep at night…and stop drinking fluids at least two hours before.
Day #5: Increase your “klotho” with exercise. Klotho is a little-known but important antiaging hormone linked in animal studies to protection against cognitive decline. Studies show that klotho levels increase after only 20 minutes of intense aerobic exercise. “Intense” means that you’ll have difficulty finishing a sentence.
Our recommendation: Aim for 25 to 30 minutes of intense aerobic exercise, four to five days a week, such as brisk walking, biking or working out on a treadmill, an elliptical, a stair-climber or other type of cardio machine.**
Day #6: Get rid of clutter—and clean out your brain. Stress exhausts the brain. And a surprising source of stress is a cluttered environment—when our homes or offices become disorderly, we experience more stress and anxiety. A clean, orderly space encourages sustained quiet and self-reflection, both of which positively impact cognition.
Our recommendation: As part of a stress-reducing plan, keep your home and office clean and uncluttered.
Day #7: Put on your dancing shoes. Brain-protective cognitive reserve develops from any challenging mental activity, such as learning to play a musical instrument or mastering a new language. But one of the best and most enjoyable ways to build cognitive reserve is dancing. When you dance, it activates various parts of the brain such as your motor cortex…your parietal lobe…your frontal lobe…and your occipital lobe. Plus, dancing is a social activity—and research shows social interaction also builds cognitive reserve.
Our recommendation: Find a dance studio and take dance classes—and then go out dancing. Or buy a DVD and learn to dance at home. Ballroom, jazz, folk—the possibilities are endless!
*Before taking any supplement, check with your doctor if you have a medical condition or take medication.
**Speak to your primary care physician before starting this (or any new) exercise program.