How to improve brain health

Learn how to make small lifestyle tweaks that can bolster your grey matter and reduce your dementia risk.

Looking after brain health lowers the risk of developing dementia, and the good news is, all this takes is small lifestyle steps that are very achievable.

To find out where to start to improve brain health, we’ve chatted with experts at the UK’s leading dementia research charity, Alzheimer’s Research UK.

We’ve also rounded up several ways you can improve your brain health, through everything from doing a daily crossword to picking up a paintbrush or starting a journal.

 

Older Asian lady filling out a crosswordCredit: Shutterstock/sasirin pamai
Doing a crossword or solving a puzzle is great for your brain health

Is it possible to reduce your dementia risk?

Yes, it is indeed possible. In 2020, comprehensive Lancet Commission research into dementia prevention led by 28 of the world’s leading dementia experts identified several key factors that can help to reduce your risk. “We recommend keeping cognitively, physically and socially active in midlife and later life,” they advise in the report.

The report’s authors also highlighted that up to 40% of dementia cases could be prevented if 12 lifestyle risk factors could be avoided. These include smoking, social isolation, high blood pressure, hearing impairment, physical inactivity, and excessive alcohol consumption – factors that may be in our control to change.

“While there are no sure-fire ways to prevent dementia yet – as risk is likely to relate to a combination of our age, genetics and lifestyle – evidence has shown that there are steps we can all take to improve our brain health,” says Professor Jonathan Schott, Alzheimer’s Research UK’s chief medical officer. “But currently, our research has found only a third of people realise this is possible, and we urgently need to change that.”

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“It’s never too late to start thinking about your brain health”

Alzheimer’s Research UK designed its Think Brain Health initiative on the core prevention areas identified in the Lancet Commission’s research. Their evidence-based tips and advice aim to encourage more people to start thinking about taking care of their brain by trying out some easy-to-implement (and surprisingly enjoyable) lifestyle tweaks. Dr Sara Imarisio, head of strategic initiatives at the charity, tells us more.

“It’s never too early and never too late to start thinking about your brain health,” she says. “Dementia is diagnosed when the symptoms are very clear and it’s evident that a person is affected by the disease. But these symptoms are usually the last stage of the disease as the early signs that define the condition are usually silent and can begin decades before.

“We launched our Think Brain Health campaign to raise awareness about what can be done to reduce your dementia risk,” she adds. “Our tips can help people of all ages, but research suggests they are especially beneficial if you start thinking about them in your fifties.”

Older man hiking outdoors and making a heart shape with his handsCredit: Shutterstock/Renata Photography
Being active is good for your brain and your heart

Why looking after your heart can make a difference

The Think Brain Health campaign has three simple rules to protect and improve your brain health, and loving your heart is the first.

What’s good for your heart is also good for your brain. “This includes having low cholesterol, not smoking, eating well, drinking responsibly, and keeping active. All of these factors are important for your heart, and they can also help to lower your dementia risk too,” explains Dr Imarisio.

“When your heart is working optimally, your blood flows with more power, and blood is the main source of nutrients and oxygen for the brain.”

Three mature ladies sharing a coffee togetherCredit: Shutterstock/BearFotos
Maintaining social connections is important

Being socially active can be particularly beneficial

Staying connected with others and being socially active is incredibly important for both your mental health and for taking care of your brain.

In his recent report Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation, the US surgeon general Dr Vivek Murthy expressed his concern about the scale of loneliness and the devastating impact of lack of social connection on millions of people. While Caroline Abrahams, director of the charity Age UK, described loneliness as being a “global health issue that can affect anyone, anywhere and at any age”.

Maintaining a connection with the outside world and interacting with others also helps to engage your brain (as well as improve your mental health too), adds Dr Imarisio.

“Finding a way that works for you that helps to maintain social connections and avoid isolation is also important. Experiencing social isolation and being disconnected from others can lead to depression, another risk factor that’s linked to the development of dementia.”

Group of mature mixed race men and women at a dance classCredit: Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images
Joining a dance class is just one of the ways you can fire up your brain

Protecting your brain health through being mentally active

Regularly doing activities that fire up your brain that you enjoy can also help to lower your dementia risk. For example, learning a new skill, tackling a newspaper crossword or starting a daily Wordle habit. But how exactly can these make a difference?

“By carrying out activities that are linked to your hobbies and interests, this will guarantee that your brain is always engaged,” explains Dr Imarisio. “It’ll also help to exercise the capacity of your brain to think and to be more agile in its reasoning.

“What’s key is to regularly do activities you enjoy to help protect your brain health.”

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How to get personalised brain health tips

In January, Alzheimer’s Research UK commissioned YouGov to ask 2,198 adults what they do to look after their brain health. Their research found almost everyone surveyed (98%) felt they could be doing more to keep their brains healthy.

To help with this, the charity offers personalised brain health advice via its Think Brain Health Check-in tool. By answering a few simple questions about the factors that are most influential on brain health, you can get bespoke tips.

TV and radio presenter Kirsty Gallacher, 47, has seen the devastating impact of dementia first-hand, as it led to the death of her beloved grandfather. The Check-in tool has helped her to feel proactive about reducing her individual risk.

“I’m at a stage in my life where I do worry about dementia, especially after seeing the effect it had on my grandfather,” she says. “It’s so vital that people know there are things we can all do to take care of our brains and reduce the risk of dementia in later life. The Check-in really opened my eyes to what can influence our brain health, from the amount of sleep we get to our hearing.”

Mature lady smiling while holding her paintbrushesCredit: Shutterstock/ullision
Getting creative via painting or keeping a journal is just one of our tips

15 ways to improve your brain health

Sometimes, all we need is a little inspiration to start making positive changes to our lifestyle. Which of these brain health tips will you try first?

  1. Dance a little every day – put on your favourite song and move to the beat. Being physically active doesn’t have to mean hitting the gym.
  2. Create a Sudoku or newspaper crossword habit – give your brain a daily workout by attempting to solve the riddle.
  3. Have a hobby? Join the club! If you love to read, why not seek out like-minded people and join a book club or sign up to a class for a dance you’ve always wanted to learn?
  4. Hop off a stop or two earlier – if you regularly take a train or bus to get out and about, try hopping off one or two stops before your usual exit point to stretch your legs and move more.
  5. Make new plans with old friends – if you haven’t seen treasured friends for a while, why not give them a call and arrange a catch-up?
  6. Stub it out – smoking accelerates ageing of the brain, so why not download the NHS Quit Smoking app?
  7. Make your morning coffee a coffee morning – grab a caffeine boost while getting together with neighbours and friends.
  8. Cut back on salt – reduce your intake by adding flavour using herbs and spices instead.
  9. Invite your neighbour over for a natter – why not pop the kettle on and chat over a cuppa?
  10. Don’t be shy, say hi – being sociable really fires up your brain, so try saying hello to someone new today.
  11. Can you dig it? Being green-fingered is great for your mental health, helping to reduce stress and improve mood.
  12. Get your hearing checked – in as little as three minutes, by using the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID’s) online hearing check.
  13. Pick up a pen (or a paintbrush) – get creative by writing a letter, starting a daily journal, or trying your hand at painting.
  14. Fancy a game? Playing board games, card games or getting the family together for a quiz night can be a fun way to stay sharp and give your brain a workout.
  15. Don’t press the button, take the stairs – incremental exercise such as taking the stairs instead of the lift is a great way to build in more daily physical activity.

 

Find out more about the Think Brain Health Check-in here: alzheimersresearchuk.org/brain-health/check-in

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Julie Penfold

Written by Julie Penfold she/her

Published:

Julie Penfold is a Staff Writer for Fitness and Wellbeing at Saga Exceptional. She’s been a specialist health and wellbeing journalist for more than 15 years and has been a finalist in three prestigious health and medical journalism awards during that time.

She has written for a wide variety of health, medical, wellbeing and fitness magazines and websites. These have included Running, TechRadar, Outdoor Fitness, Be Healthy, Top Sante, Doctors.net.uk, Primary Health Care, Community Practitioner, CareKnowledge and The Guardian’s Social Care network.

Away from work, Julie is a huge Sunderland fan, loves watching football, athletics and swimming (live whenever possible!) and is a long-term vegetarian. She also loves to run, swim and practise yoga.

Previously, she loved to race too but since 2018, this has been firmly put on the backburner due to her having back-to-back sports injuries, both of which required subsequent surgery. Julie was gearing up to a return to racing after five years, but a further injury has hampered her imminent plans. Instead, recovering well is top of her list at the moment.

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