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8 Habits That Are Good for the Brain — and How to Make Them Stick

Knowledge is power, but commitment is key when it comes to making brain-boosting changes

spinner image illustration of a man's head and with illustrations of various activities in his brain like exercising, relaxing and gardening
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Despite common misconceptions, a weakening brain is not an inevitable part of aging. It’s true that the brain changes with age, but just like other parts of the body — be it your heart or your joints — taking good care of it along the way can help prevent or delay disease and decline.

In fact, everyday habits like exercise and eating right can lower risks for memory loss and other symptoms of cognitive decline, research suggests. Studies have also found that managing blood pressure and blood sugar can benefit the brain — the same goes for sleep and social engagement.

“It’s empowering to know that we can take steps to support the health of our brains as we age,” says Sarah Lenz Lock, AARP senior vice president for policy and brain health and executive director of the Global Council on Brain Health. “But knowing is only half the battle. Committing to living a healthy lifestyle is key to keeping our brains and bodies as sharp as possible throughout adulthood.”​

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Adopting brain-boosting behaviors

Breaking old habits and adopting new ones is not always an easy feat, and the proof is in the numbers. Modifiable behaviors and choices — smoking when we know the dangers, or avoiding exercise when we know its benefits — cause up to half of all early deaths in the U.S., data shows. When it comes to the brain, a 2020 report from the Lancet Commission estimates that modifiable risk factors, like physical inactivity and excessive alcohol consumption, account for a significant share of global dementia cases.

While change can be a challenge, experts on the topic, including AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), have some tips on how to overcome common hurdles.

Set a goal (and keep it realistic). Identifying the specific action you want to take — and why it’s important to you — is the first step to behavior change, according to a new GCBH report on the topic. It’s important to keep these goals realistic, says George Rebok, a psychologist and professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who develops community-based interventions to prevent age-related cognitive decline and reduce dementia risk.

As tempting as it may be to shoot for the stars, even motivated individuals are less likely to attempt a change if they think they can’t achieve it or that it won’t work, the GCBH report explains. Attainable goals, however, can build confidence and momentum. So set your sights on something that’s manageable and “find ways to really incorporate that into your day to day life,” Rebok says.

Find something that is enjoyable for you. It helps if your goal is less chore-like and, instead, is built around something you enjoy, says Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and the author of Get It Done: Surprising Lessons From the Science of Motivation. The reason: “If you pick something that’s not enjoyable, you’re not going to stay with it,” Rebok adds.


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For example, if you want to exercise more but don’t enjoy going to a gym, explore dancing or walking with friends. Yoga and tai chi also pack brain-boosting benefits. Want to learn a new skill to challenge your brain? No need for complicated math problems (unless you find them fun); learning how to cook or mastering a musical instrument counts. So does volunteering.

“There’s this misconception that we have to do something complicated,” Rebok says. While it’s important to challenge yourself to some degree, “a lot of times very simple interventions make a big difference.”

Take a step-by-step approach. Start slow and keep track of your progress. As things become easier, “keep challenging yourself, keep trying to improve,” Rebok says. And don’t forget to celebrate your accomplishments along the way. Recognizing even small achievements can help cement your commitment, especially in the beginning stages.

Consider repurposing some of your free time. Not everyone is flush with free time, but many Americans have hours of it each day, and much of it is spent in front of screens. So swap a sedentary behavior for a healthier one, the GCBH suggests. Instead of scrolling social media, use that time to socialize with friends. Listening to a book or a podcast while you exercise will keep you entertained and active.

Anticipate obstacles. Another key part of behavior-change success is anticipating obstacles. “When you make a plan to do something, think about what might be in your way,” says Fishbach, who helped to formulate behavior change recommendations in the GCBH report. “We find that when people prepare for an obstacle, it’s like preparing to lift something that’s heavy — your body is actually physically and mentally getting ready to lift this heavy thing.”

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For example, if you’re going to be in a place where there’s going to be a lot of alcohol and you are working to limit your intake, it’s easier to stick to your goal if you consider that temptation in advance, Fishbach explains. Will out-of-town travel throw a wrench into your exercise routine? “Thinking about that in advance is often half the battle,” she adds. It helps you anticipate ways to overcome the challenges.

Get support from friends and family. Just like children have teachers, coaches and caregivers to cheer them on when they learn new things, adults need a support system, too, Rebok says. “I think there needs to be more of what we call ‘scaffolding’ for our efforts to improve our brain health,” he adds.

So, find a buddy who will join you for workouts or for brain-stimulating activities. And inform friends and family of your goals so they can help hold you accountable.

“If you want to change your diet, you have a much better chance if you live with people who are on board with that change. If you want to introduce an exercise, you have a better chance if the people around you [support your goal]. If you don’t have social support, we find that it is much harder,” Fishbach says.

A few other tips: Don’t let setbacks set you back. Instead, learn from your failures — they can help highlight what works and what doesn’t and “may help motivate you to not lose your previous progress and bear down to cross the finish line,” the GCBH says in its report.

Also, consider using the beginning of a new year, new month or new week as an opportunity to set new goals. There’s nothing like a fresh start.

“Choose that one healthy thing you can do today to support your brain. Do it today, and if you find you like it, try it again,” Lock says. “Soon you will be on your way toward living that brain-healthy lifestyle that can make a real difference as you age.”

8 Behaviors That Can Benefit the Brain

  1. Stay socially engaged
  2. Quit smoking
  3. Find ways to stimulate your brain
  4. Manage stress
  5. Stay physically active
  6. Get enough sleep (aim for at least seven hours)
  7. Eat a healthy diet
  8. Control blood pressure and blood sugar levels

Source: Global Council on Brain Health/CDC

Rachel Nania writes about health care and health policy for AARP. Previously, she was a reporter and editor for WTOP Radio in Washington, D.C. A recipient of a Gracie Award and a regional Edward R. Murrow Award, she also participated in a dementia fellowship with the National Press Foundation.​​​

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