Natural Lifestyle Approaches to Optimize Cognitive Health


Your brain is arguably the most complicated organ in your body. Think of it as a super-computer that orchestrates your every movement, reflex, and thought. Your brain controls your body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing. It directs your muscles and nerves, and processes a never-ending flood of information about the world around you. Plus, it sorts and stores memories, allows you to make decisions, and gives you the ability to communicate through speech.

Your brain also lets you dream and experience emotions. All of these tasks are coordinated, controlled, and regulated by an organ that weighs just three pounds. (1) But aging and your day-to-day habits can influence brain health. While there’s nothing you can do to slow the hands of time, here are some simple lifestyle swaps that can help your brain stay sharp for a lifetime.

variety of foods including bread, fruit, vegetables,

A whole foods diet provides the brain with the nutrients it needs for optimal performance.

What’s the best diet for brain health?

Your brain needs quality fuel to function at its best. While there are a few standout foods you need to eat for a healthy brain, some evidence suggests that, when it comes to boosting brain performance, your diet as a whole may be more effective than any individual component. (2)

Mediterranean diet

Long-term adherence to a Mediterranean diet has been shown to improve both cognition and memory in older adults. (3) One reason this diet filled with minimally-processed foods may be so effective is that it provides a wide range of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that support overall brain health.

MIND diet

As beneficial as the Mediterranean diet is by itself, neuroscientists have taken it one step further by pairing it with the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. Dubbed the MIND diet, it is high in berries, leafy greens, dairy, potatoes, fish, whole grains, and healthy fats with limited amounts of red meat. In a 2015 study involving 923 adults, researchers at Rush University found that eating the MIND diet slows brain aging by as much as 7.5 years. It also lowered the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. (4)

Whether you opt for the standard Mediterranean diet or upgrade to the MIND diet, trading in highly processed foods for cleaner, less processed foods can enhance brain function. Handy tip: stick to shopping the perimeter of your supermarket for healthier whole foods.

Did you know?
Eating a diet high in fat and sugar changes the bacteria in your intestinal tract—a condition known as gut dysbiosis. This can negatively impact the gut-brain axis and affect cognition. (5)

Exercise for brain health

Studies show that exercise boosts oxygen and blood flow, reduces inflammation, and enhances connectivity in the brain. New findings by Elon University and the University of North Carolina report that exercise also increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein in the brain that plays a role in maintaining the number and health of neurons. There’s more good news! Even light-intensity exercise improves memory. (6)

Did you know?
All types of exercise improve cognition and memory. Whether you like to walk, cycle, lift weights, or even practice Tai Chi in the park, studies suggest that simply moving can enhance your brainpower. (7)(8)

man and woman riding bikes in the woods

Activities, such as cycling, challenge your brain and can keep it firing on all cylinders.

Train your brain

Although regular exercise can help you keep your mental edge, it’s also important to give the brain itself a regular workout. Researchers at the University of Arizona have noted that combining physical exercise with cognitive tasks helps to foster brain health for a lifetime. (9) Working your brain is so effective that one study of 488 older adults taking part in the Bronx Aging Study found that routinely doing crossword puzzles delayed the onset of memory loss by more than two-and-a-half years. (10)

There are many ways to stimulate your mind. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Challenge yourself with computer-based brain games
  • Expand your vocabulary
  • Learn an instrument
  • Play bridge, chess, or other mentally-challenging games
  • Study a new language
  • Take a class in something that has always interested you
  • Write your life’s story

Did you know?
In addition to challenging your mind, it’s important to foster relationships with family and friends. Research shows that maintaining a socially active lifestyle can improve cognitive function. (11)

Chronic stress, cognitive functioning, and mental health

Keeping stress in check can also protect your mental prowess. Stress causes the release of cortisol—a hormone that is critical for our stress response. But over time, elevated cortisol levels not only harm existing brain cells, they dramatically decrease the rate at which new brain cells are made. Long-term stress may also impact the actual structure of the brain, causing it to shrink. (12) All of these changes can impair the formation of memories and the ability to reason. (13)

Adding relaxation to your life can help lower cortisol levels. Keep a lid on stress with soothing activities like meditation, yoga, deep breathing, or biofeedback therapy. Even simply listening to some relaxing music can lower your stress levels. Cultivating calm can change your brain waves and may offer protection against the brain-damaging effects of stress. (14) For even more stress relief, consider adding one or two supplements that have been clinically shown to ease stress and anxiety.

woman sleeping in bed

Getting a good night’s sleep is critical for consolidating memories and maintaining cognitive acuity.

Sleep for better brain health

Adequate sleep is crucial to proper brain function. Not only is sleep vital for regenerating our neurons, but getting enough shut-eye also consolidates our memories. Connections between nerve cells in the brain are also strengthened by sleep, which adds to both learning and memory potential. (15)

The problem is, we live in a 24/7 society filled with constant demands on our time. As a result, many of us are sleep deprived—and any amount of sleep deprivation has been shown to adversely affect our focus, memory, and decision making. (16) Making high-quality sleep a priority can ensure that you are getting all the rejuvenating rest your brain needs. Strive to get at least seven to nine hours of sleep every night.

The bottom line

There’s no magic bullet or single lifestyle change that can guarantee optimal brain health. How well your brain functions requires good habits across the board. But incorporating these smart strategies into your life can keep you mentally sharp and help protect against future cognitive decline.

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  1. Brain Basics: Know Your Brain. National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. 2019. Available at https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Know-Your-Brain
  2. Solfrizzi V, Custodero C, Lozupone M, et al. Relationships of dietary patterns, foods, and micro- and macronutrients with Alzheimer’s disease and late-life cognitive disorders: A systematic review. J Alzheimers Dis. 2017;59(3):815-49.
  3. Wade AT, Elias MF, Murphy KJ. Adherence to a Mediterranean diet is associated with cognitive function in an older non-Mediterranean sample: findings from the Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study. Nutr Neurosci. 2019;1-12.
  4. Morris MC, Tangney CC, Wang Y, et al. MIND diet associated with reduce incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimers Dement. 2015; 11(9):1007-1014.
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