When you consider everything this awe-inspiring organ does for you, it's mind-blowing. But caring for it isn't always top of, well, you know. To keep your brain sharp and nimble, learn how to challenge it, what to feed it, and when to let it wander.

By Jennifer Lindley
August 27, 2019

We track our heart rate, exercise our muscles, and protect our skin with sunscreen as best we can. Yet despite all the thinking our brain does for us, we rarely stop and think about it. Our small but mighty command center can simultaneously rehearse a PowerPoint, manage digestion, dive to catch a teetering coffee mug, and contemplate whether perfect love is actually attainable. Just ponder that for a minute.

But exactly how the brain gets all that done is a mystery. However, our understanding of this three-pound wonder has exploded in the past two decades. Once upon a time, we thought we were born with all our brain cells, or neurons. Now, research is showing us evidence that we continue to make more as we age. We can also build new connections between existing neurons, a phenomenon called neuroplasticity that helps our brain hum along at high efficiency.

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Experts are learning more about how our daily choices can benefit the brain, too. "Changes that lead to Alzheimer's start decades before the first symptoms of forgetfulness," says Marwan Sabbagh, MD, director of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas, Nevada. "You can take steps in early and middle adulthood to protect your brain, for right now and down the road."

While your mother always said eating right and exercising would do nothing but benefit our health, those aren't the only ways to keep our brains in tip-top shape. Read on for more ways you can help yours be its very best.

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Whether it happens at book club or weeding in the community garden, what can seem like small talk does a world of good. "Social engagement is one of the most important things you can do for brain health," says Jessica Langbaum, PhD, associate director of the Alzheimer's Prevention Initiative at the Banner Alzheimer's Institute, in Phoenix, Arizona. And it doesn't just give you a long-term advantage. Social ties also buffer us from the effects of the stress hormone cortisol. That's good news, since a 2018 study in Neurology found that middle-aged adults—women in particular—with high levels of it scored lower on memory and attention tests than subjects with moderate levels.

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"Multitasking is as bad for your brain as smoking is for your lungs," says Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD, author of Make Your Brain Smarter, professer and founder of University of Texas at Dallas's Center for BrainHealth. A surefire by-product is an elevated cortisol level can dim your recall and focus powers. When you multitask—texting during a meeting, say—you ask your brain to do two competing things. "It overloads the brain and makes you less efficient," Bond Chapman says. "It's like having your feet on the gas and the brake simultaneously." Instead, try focusing on just one thing in its turn, and step away from what you're doing for three to five minutes a few times a day.

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Researchers at Chicago's Rush University Medical Center and Harvard University developed a way to eat that keeps the brain stoked with what it needs now and staves off future cognitive decline. Meet the MIND diet, a combo of the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) regimens. "Nutrients in the MIND (or Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) diet have been shown to reduce inflammation, prevent neuron death, and reduce oxidative stress, which can harm neurons," says Martha Clare Morris, ScD, a Rush University Medical Center researcher and nutritional epidemiologist.

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The key players are omega-3 fatty acids, from at least one three-ounce serving of fish a week; polyphenols, from berries (two half-cup servings or more a week—wild blueberries are especially potent); and plenty of olive oil's healthy fat. The diet also calls for a daily minimum of a cup of raw or a half-cup of cooked leafy greens (spinach is particularly rich in protective vitamin E) and five weekly one-ounce servings of nuts, which are chock-full of the B vitamins neurons love. "Eating this way gives your brain all the macro-and micronutrients it needs for peak performance, period," says Maggie Moon, a registered dietitian and author of The MIND Diet.

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All the busy experts in this story make fitness a top priority. "I started running after I noticed the top brain researchers do it—and I hate running," says Sabbagh. But in truth, any exercise helps manage blood pressure and lower stroke risk. It also increases blood flow to the brain, ups its oxygen supply, and reduces inflammation. In addition, "a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, increases," Sabbagh says. "It regenerates neurons and helps them work better."

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In a 2018 review in Neurology Clinical Practice, people in their 70s who logged at least 52 hours total (about three times a week) over six months improved most in vital areas like problem-solving and mental speed. "It didn't have to be high- or moderate-intensity, either. Tai chi and yoga count," says lead researcher Joyce Gomes-Osman, PhD, a clinical neuroscientist and assistant professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

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"The brain craves novelty," says Tracey Shors, PhD, a distinguished professor of psychology and neuroscience at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. And it doesn't get it from a sudoku or brain-training app, which recruits the same skills repeatedly. "It's like exercising one muscle—that one gets stronger, but your overall fitness doesn't change," says Langbaum. She and Shors agree it's best to pick up interests that command your full attention and keep developing your skills, like playing a new instrument or learning a foreign language.

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When we nod off, the brain's nighttime janitors come out and mop up the day's mess. "Cognitive activities require energy and create waste that builds up in the brain," explains Jessica Payne, PhD, a sleep researcher at the University of Notre Dame. Among the refuse is beta-amyloid, a protein that forms plaques and tangles in the brains of people with Alzheimer's. "During deep, slow-wave sleep [which gets logged mostly in the first few hours], this gunk gets flushed out," Payne says. That said, indiviudals who suffer from chronic sleep problems are often as higher risk of developing dementia.

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To get more of that good rest, establish a wind-down routine: Stretch, read, or take a sip some soothing tea a half hour before bed. And if you have symptoms like daytime fatigue or freight-train snoring, get checked for sleep apnea, which affects an estimated 22 million Americans. "Long-term sufferers have been shown to have less white matter, the fibers that help send signals between brain cells," says Sabbagh. "Patients come in complaining of memory impairment. Treatment improves it in days. They often say they feel clearer." In other words, their brains light right back up.

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This article originally appeared on MarthaStewart.com

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