Start Promoting A Healthy Brain Span Today With These 5 Simple Habits
How often do you think about thinking? No, really—consider how you recall, process, and interpret the world around you. These functions, collectively known as cognitive health, affect not just your daily experiences but your overall well-being as well.
As we get older, cognitive functions tend to change and shift. Luckily there are things we can do to support cognitive longevity and function. And it's never too early to start.
Here's what experts say about how to maintain and protect crucial neurological processes—no matter your age.
What is cognitive health?
"Cognitive health is [your] ability to think clearly, learn, and remember," explains Julie Rowin, M.D., FAAN, DABMA, integrative neurologist at Verde Valley Naturopathic Medicine.
This includes a range of critical brain functions1, such as attention, reasoning, reaction time, and memory. It also includes your ability to process information, navigate relationships, and develop plans and conclusions, adds Rowin.
However, as with all parts of the body, the brain (and therefore, cognitive well-being) naturally changes as you age. For starters, neurons (nerve cells) shrink over time2, which reduces gray matter3 in the brain.
Gray matter is the tissue involved in daily cognitive functioning. Neurogenesis, or the production of new nerve cells, also slows down later in life, which can ultimately affect optimal cognition. These changes are a normal part of getting older, meaning everyone experiences them to some degree as they age. "Some older individuals may find that they're not as fast as younger adults on tasks that require learning and memory," Rowin explains.
Other cognitive functions such as attention and decision-making4 might also shift with age.
How cognitive health affects longevity
Cognitive health is used for much more than recalling fun facts or your neighbor's name. It's a critical component of brain health and longevity.
But take note—this isn't about trying to stay young or alive forever (which is impossible, anyway!). Instead, it's about supporting your brain in a way that enables you to age gracefully and, ultimately, live a long and healthy life.
Needless to say, taking care of your brain is vital, especially over time. As Rowin explains, "A lifetime of cumulative events—such as stress, surgery, and environmental toxin exposure—can impact cognitive health and longevity. [And] as life spans increase, it's important to optimize cognitive health to maintain quality of life and independence."
It's worth mentioning that some factors of cognitive health are out of our control. This includes genetics and family history, which directly influence how your brain and body both change over time.
However, Rowin notes that implementing healthy lifestyle strategies can enhance and support cognitive function throughout life.
How to support cognitive health
At first thought, altering your habits in the name of cognitive function may seem intimidating. But know that you don't need to upend your lifestyle to experience positive effects. In fact, it's those small, gentle changes that will make the biggest impact.
Start by adopting the following strategies to care for your brain. When done regularly, these behaviors will enhance cognitive function by supporting your brain's structure, protecting neurons and enhancing blood flow (so your brain gets all the oxygen and nutrients it needs to operate at full capacity).
Eat brain-supporting foods.
Nutrients from food act as fuel for the brain (just like the rest of your body), says Isa Kujawski, MPH, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of Mea Nutrition.
Additionally, "diet is tied to the health of the gut microbiome, which interacts with the central nervous system and influences brain behavior," Kujawski explains. Simply put, a healthy and balanced diet is key for supporting brain health and cognitive processes.
Specifically, brain-friendly nutrients include:
- Omega-3s.Omega-3s are polyunsaturated fatty acids. They're an important component of cell membranes, says Kujawski, which sets the stage for smooth cell signaling. "Omega-3s help regulate proper blood flow in the brain, which is necessary for cognitive tasks, especially memory," she adds. Excellent sources of omega-3s EPA and DHA include fatty fish (think salmon, anchovies, and sardines) and chia or flaxseeds for ALA.
- Antioxidants. Antioxidants protect the brain by actively combating oxidative stress and supporting a healthy inflammatory response. Examples of antioxidant-rich foods include those powerhouse omega-3s again and most plants, especially berries, dark green leafy vegetables, and green tea.
- High-quality proteins. Complete proteins—such as salmon, chicken breast, tempeh, and eggs—help "provide essential amino acids, which are the backbone for neurotransmitters (the chemical messengers in the brain)," says Kujawski.
- Fiber. According to Kujawski, "Both soluble fiber and insoluble fiber are important for gut health, as they act as food for friendly gut bacteria." This keeps the gut healthy—which, again, is connected to the proper function of the brain and central nervous system.
Kujawski adds that the brain accounts for about 20% of the body's daily resting energy expenditure, so getting enough fuel from food is important for the brain in general (and at all ages).
Take a brain health supplement.
In addition to noshing on brain-friendly foods, taking a comprehensive brain health supplement can also lend a hand.
Look for a supplement containing neuroprotective bioactives, nutrients, and botanicals proven to support cognitive vitality and performance.*
For example, in mbg's brain guard+, you'll find the following neuroprotective ingredients:*
- Kanna: Kanna (Sceletium tortuosum) is an indigenous medicinal plant from South Africa. In our powerful nootropic formula, kanna is delivered as Zembrin®, which is clinically proven to support cognitive flexibility.* Case in point: One clinical trial5 found that a six-week regimen of Zembrin® supplementation enhances cognitive flexibility in adults aged 45 to 65 years old.*
- Resveratrol: "Resveratrol is a powerful antioxidant [and] protective of metabolic pathways of heart and brain functioning,"* says Ella Davar, R.D., CDN, longevity dietitian and founder of Nutritionist Ella. She adds that clinical evidence6 suggests resveratrol is also able to improve cerebral blood flow and enhance overall cognitive performance.*
- Citicoline: As Davar explains, citicoline is a brain chemical that helps protect the brain by stabilizing cell membranes, which reduces the presence of free radicals. While some citicoline is synthesized in the liver, it's rarely enough to support the body's needs, so we need to make sure we obtain adequate amounts from dietary sources7 (i.e., food and supplementation). In a 2021 RCT study published in the Journal of Nutrition8, healthy older adults that took citicoline daily (specifically, Cognizin®—the form featured in brain guard+) for 12 weeks were found to experience improved episodic and overall memory performance, which makes it a powerful tool for aging gracefully.*
It may be easier said than done, but getting enough shut-eye is one of the best things you can do for cognitive function. According to scientific reviews published in Frontiers, your brain consolidates memories9 and protects neurogenesis10 in the hippocampus.
This is notable for several reasons: The hippocampus has a central role in cognitive processes11, including memory and cognitive function. According to a review from Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology, it's also one of the few parts of the brain where neurogenesis continues throughout adulthood12, emphasizing the importance of protecting it via the strategies listed here (including adequate sleep).
According to Rowin, regular exercise (including vigorous physical activity) is an important habit for optimizing cognitive health.
Much of this is due to the link between exercise and blood flow: According to a 2018 scientific article13 published in Frontiers in Psychology, physical activity nurtures heart function and blood flow to essential organs, including the brain. This ensures it has adequate oxygen to function and thrive.
Plus, staying active slows down the natural decrease in nerve cells14 as we age, potentially offering protection against reduced neurogenesis later in life.
Challenge your brain.
Although challenging your brain via puzzles or brain games may help support cognitive function, there's a lot more to the habit, says Rowin.
"It's important to engage in activities you love and continue to learn," she explains. This entails finding new interests and hobbies to challenge you while staying engaged with family, friends, and community. Staying curious—and finding a meaningful purpose in life—can go a long way in supporting your cognitive health, shares Rowin.
Healthy cognitive function is an essential aspect of graceful aging. However, cognitive processes naturally change over time, stressing the importance of brain-friendly habits. This includes strategies like staying active, prioritizing sleep, challenging your brain, eating a well-balanced diet, and taking a premium, comprehensive nootropic supplement.*
To target mental clarity, cognitive flexibility, memory performance, and more, consider mbg's brain guard+ (or another nootropic supplement in our comprehensive memory supplement roundup).* Our scientifically advanced brain guard+ formula is designed to enhance cognitive vitality and performance, no matter how old you are (because it's never too early to nourish your brain).*
So, who's ready to flex their brain span?
Morgan Chamberlain is a supplement editor at mindbodygreen. She graduated from Syracuse University with a Bachelor of Science degree in magazine journalism and a minor in nutrition. Chamberlain believes in taking small steps to improve your well-being—whether that means eating more plant-based foods, checking in with a therapist weekly, or spending quality time with your closest friends. When she isn’t typing away furiously at her keyboard, you can find her cooking in the kitchen, hanging outside, or doing a vinyasa flow.