7 Mistakes We Make That Age Our Brains

by Laurie Ulster
Originally Published: 

As an older parent, I think about this a lot. I have some guilt about my age, even though my life unfolded the way it should. My kids are still young, and although I don’t enjoy tormenting myself with thoughts of my own mortality, I do it anyway. With that in mind, I do yoga to stay flexible and strong, and prevent stiffness from setting in. I always assumed that keeping my brain in shape was out of my hands, but it looks like I might have more control than I thought. OK, brain, it’s your turn.

Here are 7 things we should avoid, if we want to keep our brains sharp and spry.

1. Eating a standard American diet.

Sugar, unhealthy fats and processed foods: We all know these things are bad for our bodies, but they’re bad for our brains too. Too much sugar impacts our memory and our ability to learn, and may even be a factor in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Scientists recommend a Mediterranean-based diet to help protect the brain, which means a lot of fish, whole grains and vegetables.

Sadly, it doesn’t say that we should eat more grilled cheese, or chocolate, or Girl Scout cookies.

2. Living next to a highway.

Air pollution is the enemy here, and obviously living close to a major highway is going to increase your intake. I always wonder about that when we see houses next to the highway. It can make you more susceptible to silent (or symptomless) strokes, which is a scary thought.

3. Drinking cocktails in the evening.

Even wine? It’s a tough one to swallow when there are so many studies out there also telling you to drink a glass of wine every day. But having a couple of glasses of any type of alcohol on a daily basis can do some harm, even if it does have cardiovascular benefits. The studies do seem a little torn on this one, using phrases like “could pose a risk” and “could have an adverse effect.” Something to keep in mind.

4. Giving in to stress.

This is the worst thing you can do, apparently! Chronic stress shortens the length of telomeres, which are the sequences at the end of DNA strands that set the pace of aging for the cells in our bodies. As for our brains, too much stress can increase the risk for Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline. Meditation, which some like to scoff at, has been proven to lower the stress hormone cortisol and protect the brain from aging, so stop scoffing and give it a shot. To those who haven’t tried it, I can promise you that it’s easier than you think and immensely helpful. It doesn’t have to be weird or involve ohm-ing, and it’s not about emptying your mind. It’s just about slowing the internal hubbub down.

5. Missing out on sleep.

We all know that sleep deprivation is a form of torture, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that not getting enough sleep in your day-to-day life can speed up the aging process in your brain. I haven’t mastered this one yet, but I like any study that tells me sleeping is good for my health.

6. Sitting all day.

Not only is it bad for your body, it can shrink your brain! This one sucks for writers, in particular, who are supposed to get better as we get older—unless we’re sitting down writing all day. Oops.

7. Zoning out.

Time to balance out your TV viewing with reading, cooking, talking to someone who actually talks back to you, or even crossword puzzles and sudoku. Brain exercises, they say, work better than drugs to keep us sharp and prevent cognitive decline.

The best thing you can do for your brain, it turns out, is to keep doing new things. I am lucky enough to have my wonderful grandmother around, who’s now 95-and-a-half years old and still healthy both physically and mentally. She’s walking proof that this list is a good one. She still plays golf regularly, she loves doing new things, she reads, she socializes, she goes on walks, and she still travels. She went to Spain last year! Best of all, she’s around for all of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Isn’t that just what we all want?

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