Your brain. As long as the body's command center seems to be in reasonably working order, most of us don't think too much about it. But many experts say it's time to get more proactive about our brain health, which can deteriorate as we get older. The number of people living with dementia worldwide is expected to triple by 2050, as the population ages and life expectancy increases. Although there is no cure for dementia at present, several studies have found you can take action to keep your brain healthy—and there are many destructive patterns that can wreck this incredibly vital organ. Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.
You're Chronically Lonely
Out of necessity, most of us have been isolated during the pandemic. But staying lonely can endanger your brain health. Loneliness seems to cause a stress reaction in the body that, over time, can weaken the heart, immune system, and brain. "Social isolation and loneliness have negative health impacts on par with obesity, physical inactivity, and smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and are associated with about a 50% increased risk of dementia," says Scott Kaiser, MD, a board-certified geriatrician at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, and director of geriatric cognitive health for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute.
You're Not Getting Enough Sleep
Sleep is incredibly important to your brain. During that time, it self-cleans, eliminating proteins and waste that can lead to dementia. Don't get enough sleep, and you'll raise your risk of temporary fog now and dementia later on. "The quantity and quality of sleep have profound physiological impacts that impact our day-to-day thinking, memory, and mood as well as our long-term risk of cognitive decline," says Kaiser. Experts recommend that adults get seven to nine hours of quality sleep every night.
You're Not Exercising
If you're not exercising regularly, you aren't just endangering your heart and waistline. A sedentary lifestyle has been associated with an increased risk of dementia and cardiovascular diseases like stroke. "The benefits of regular physical activity are so numerous, especially for our brain health, that in a sense exercise is the closest thing we have to a miracle drug," says Kaiser. According to the Mayo Clinic, simply walking briskly for 30 to 60 minutes, three to five times a week, can lead to "measurable brain improvements."
You're Not Eating Enough of These Foods
Recent studies suggest that the concept of "brain food" is not a myth. "An extensive and growing body of research demonstrates the brain-health benefits of certain foods, especially those rich in certain antioxidants and other neuroprotective compounds," says Kaiser.
Some studies show that people who consume more phytonutrients called flavonoids intake have a lower risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. These natural chemicals seem to protect the brain against injury. Flavonoid-rich foods include berries, leafy green vegetables, citrus fruits, tea, and dark chocolate.
You Don't Have a Sense of Purpose
Feeling adrift? It's not just bad for your bank account; your brain can suffer too. One long-term study found that people who had a high sense of purpose or meaning in life were 2.4 times less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease than people with low purpose. Preserving a sense of meaning seems to keep your brain healthy, even if it's been physically damaged through injury or stroke. You don't have to have the answer to the meaning of life; just get involved—studies have found that volunteering, mentoring, and taking classes are all effective ways to improve your brain health. So seek help if you need it, and to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.