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Neurology Professors Just Listed the 9 Worst Habits for the Human Brain

Brain scientists say caring for your brain is a lot like taking care of your heart.

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Especially following the worst phase of a pandemic, maybe you embrace the idea of aging with more open arms than many of us might have a few years ago. If you count every birthday as a blessing, there are simple choices you can make every day to age well.

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And just like you follow practices to help your skin or heart age healthfully, we’re starting to understand that we can support our brains to better preserve memory, attention, reasoning and problem solving—making it easier to find your keys, engage with loved ones, and enjoy life for longer. Says Joe Verghese, MBBS, MS, a professor of neurology and founding director of the Montefiore-Einstein Center for the Aging Brain in New York City: “A lot of research shows that healthy lifestyles and engaging in cognitively stimulating activities have a really robust effect on slowing the rate of cognitive decline and preventing dementia.”

On the other hand, some frequent habits can make you more vulnerable to memory and cognition problems down the road. Here’s what Verghese says are the worst habits that aren’t so beneficial for your brain, and what you can do to troubleshoot them right now.

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You don’t exercise

Not getting enough physical activity may hasten cognitive decline and generally age us beyond our years. Exercising may prevent some of this decline. One 2020 review in Preventive Medicine highlighted a study that found cognitive decline occurred at twice the rate among inactive adults aged 45 and older, compared with active adults. Other research has supported the premise, including a 2022 study that found physical activity benefits the hippocampus, a part of the brain critical to memory.

The research isn’t conclusive, but exercise helps overall, Verghese says.

Here’s How Much Exercise You Need to Keep Your Brain Sharp, a Recent Study Says

What to do

“Even if you start in your 60s, you can reap pretty dramatic benefits doing something simple like walking,” says Art Kramer, PhD, founding director of the Center for Cognitive and Brain Health at Northeastern University in Boston.

Weight training may also help, says Denise C. Park, PhD, director of research for the Center for Vital Longevity and professor of brain and behavioral sciences at The University of Texas at Dallas

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You sit around all day

Americans are sitting around more than ever—often in front of a screen—according to one 2019 American Medical Association study. This non-activity may contribute to brain changes associated with worsened memory.

What to do

Get up and walk around five minutes every hour. You can even set a timer to remind yourself. In a 2019 sports medicine study, aspects of cognitive function improved among participants who broke up periods of prolonged sitting. Similar benefits have been seen among schoolchildren—evidence that maybe a little recess time might not hurt for us grownups, too.

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You eat fast food and drink sugary beverages

The exact diet that can damage your heart can also damage your brain, namely food and drink high in fat and sugar. According to a 2017 Alzheimer’s study, people who drank more than one sugary beverages each day had a smaller brain volume and scored less on memory tests, both of which can indicate potential Alzheimer’s disease in the future.

Research also tells us that a healthy diet may preserve brain function, including memory and processing speed. Diets tailored to individual characteristics, including cultural background, have shown particular promise in this area, research says.

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What to do

The National Institutes of Health points to the Mediterranean diet as one that is also good for your brain. The diet puts a premium on vegetables, whole grains, fish and olive oil. The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is another good choice, says Dr. Kaplan.

It’s also a good idea to moderate alcohol, with a 2022 study found that even two drinks a day versus one was associated with a noticeable shrinkage in brain volume—read Drinking This Much Alcohol a Week Can Negatively Affect Your Brain.

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You spend a lot of time alone

Loneliness has been associated with cognitive decline, while being engaged also helps you find purpose and meaning in life—which research has linked with maintaining cognitive health and a lower risk for dementia.

What to do

Look for ways to meaningfully interact with others: a long conversation or a shared activity. Also, have your hearing checked. “Poor hearing is a risk factor for cognitive decline,” says Verghese. Hearing loss can lead to depression and social isolation, as well as reduced sensory input that can lead to less brain stimulation.

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You don’t watch your blood pressure

We mentioned already that many heart-healthy practices will also benefit your brain. Top of the list is maintaining a normal blood pressure, says Dr. Verghese.

Both high and low blood pressure (low is more common in your 80s and 90s) can compromise your cognitive functioning. “At the most basic level, it’s not getting enough blood to the brain,” he explains. “It hardens and narrows blood vessels. It might also cause changes in brain cells and neurotransmitters.”

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What to do

Take steps to keep your blood pressure less than 120/80 mmHg, which is considered normal.

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You cheat on sleep

Skimp on sleep, and you run the risk not only of fogginess the next day but also of declining mental function over the long-term. “If you’re very exhausted, you don’t have the same focus as you do when you sleep and exercise,” says Dr. Park.

What to do

Adults should get at least seven hours of sleep a night, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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You stress a lot

Different studies have linked neuroticism with cognitive decline and even a greater risk of dementia. Chronic stress, too, has been linked with smaller brain volume.

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What to do

Sometimes it’s not feasible to reduce stress but, to the extent that you can, try and relax. “More and more researchers are looking at mindfulness, yoga and T’ai Chi to reduce the effects of stress on minds and bodies,” says Dr. Kramer.

8 Mini Meditations to Relieve Stress and Anxiety

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You don’t take time for play

A study led by Dr. Verghese and published in the peer-reviewed New England Journal of Medicine followed more than 450 people over the age of 75 for five years and found that those who engaged in leisure activities like board games, reading, dancing and playing musical instruments were less likely to develop dementia than their less active counterparts.

What to do

Find activities that interest you, ones that you’ll do a few times each week, suggests Dr. Verghese. Better yet, mix up the activities: crosswords plus chess, plus playing an instrument…and make sure they remain challenging. “I tell patients to pick activities that they enjoy doing so they will do it regularly, at least three or four times a week,” he says.

Close-up of a doctor putting a band-aid on the arm of a male after giving vaccineLuis Alvarez/Getty Images

You skip vaccines

Along with warding off a whole host of debilitating infectious illnesses, vaccines may also fend off Alzheimer’s. Although not conclusive, a 2022 study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that people aged 65 and over who’d had a flu shot had a reduced risk of dementia compared with unvaccinated folks. Other studies have also found associations between flu and pneumonia vaccines and a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s.

What to do

Get vaccinated. An updated version of the Covid-19 vaccine is widely available. The best time to get a flu shot is September and October, says the CDC.

(Also do not miss Which Vaccines Do You Need in 2022-23? Here’s the Breakdown for All Ages.)

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Sources
Joe Verghese, MBBS, founding director, Montefiore-Einstein Center for the Aging Brain and professor, The Saul R. Korey Department of Neurology, Albert Einstein School of Medicine, New York City. Harvard Medical School: "The worst habits for your brain" Preventive Medicine: "Cross-sectional association between physical activity level and subjective cognitive decline among US adults aged ≥45 years, 2015 Art Kramer, PhD, founding director, Center for Cognitive and Brain Health, Northeastern University, Boston Denise C. Park, PhD, director of research, Center for Vital Longevity and professor of brain and behavioral sciences, The University of Texas at Dallas Genes: "Physical Activity and Brain Health" Hippocampus: "Aerobic Exercise, Cardiorespiratory Fitness, and the Human Hippocampus" The Lancet Neurology: "Brain insulin resistance in Alzheimer's disease and related disorders: mechanisms and therapeutic approaches" Journal of the American Medical Association: "Trends in Sedentary Behavior Among the US Population, 2001-2016" PLOS One: "Sedentary behavior associated with reduced medial temporal lobe thickness in middle-aged and older adults" PLOS One: "Breaking up prolonged sitting with moderate-intensity walking improves attention and executive function in Qatari females" PLOS One: "Breaking up classroom sitting time with cognitively engaging physical activity: Behavioural and brain responses" Alzheimer's & Dementia: "Sugary beverage intake and preclinical Alzheimer's disease in the community" Frontiers in Human Neuroscience: "The Effect of Healthy Diet on Cognitive Performance Among Healthy Seniors – A Mini Review" National Institutes of Health: "Diet may help preserve cognitive function" Nature Communications: "Associations between alcohol consumption and gray and white matter volumes in the UK Biobank" Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Dietary Guidelines for Alcohol" International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry: "Are loneliness and social isolation associated with cognitive decline?" Trends in Cognitive Sciences: "Sense of Purpose in Life and Healthier Cognitive Aging" Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "High Blood Pressure Symptoms and Causes" Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "1 in 3 adults don't get enough sleep" Sleep Foundation: "Sleep Hygiene" Journal of the American Medical Association: "Association Between Sleep Duration and Cognitive Decline" Journal of Psychiatric Research: "Is Neuroticism Differentially Associated with Risk of Alzheimer's Disease, Vascular Dementia, and Frontotemporal Dementia?" Journal of Psychiatric Research: "Personality traits and risk of cognitive impairment and dementia" Journal of Alzheimer's Disease: "Risk of Alzheimer's Disease Following Influenza Vaccination: A Claims-Based Cohort Study Using Propensity Score Matching" Alzheimer's Association: "Flu, Pneumonia Vaccinations Tied to Lower Risk of Alzheimer's Dementia" Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Frequently Asked Influenza (Flu) Questions: 2022-2023 Season" Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Pneumococcal Vaccine: What Everyone Should Know" New England Journal of Medicine: "Leisure Activities and the Risk of Dementia in the Elderly" https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/nejmoa022252

Amanda Gardner
Amanda Gardner is a freelance health reporter whose stories have appeared in cnn.com, health.com, cnn.com, WebMD, HealthDay, Self Magazine, the New York Daily News, Teachers & Writers Magazine, the Foreign Service Journal, AmeriQuests (Vanderbilt University) and others. In 2009, she served as writer-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. She is also a community artist and recipient or partner in five National Endowment for the Arts grants.