Keep your brain young with neurohacks

14 Secrets to a Younger Brain: Neurohacks

Brain health is something we tend to take for granted. Particularly when we're younger, we might not give much thought to the three-pound, mushy collection of brain cells in our heads.

But think on this: your brain is involved when you take a bite of your favorite food, enjoy the velvety smell of your cup of joe, play with your pooch, organize yourself for the week, exercise, sleep, have sex, etc. Indeed, it's thanks to that collection of neurons weaving together the different inputs from your memory, your body (eyes, mouth, nose, touch) and the outside world that you experience life. This is why, despite how the popular saying goes, staying young at mind is the key to a joyful life.

Unfortunately, just as the rest of our body changes as we grow older, brain aging is somewhat of an inevitability, and lapses in our cognitive abilities can make those golden years a bit less golden.

So, does an aging brain mean we have to lose our cognitive abilities? Not necessarily. We'll be the first to tell you that while you can't fight the aging process, you can be proactive about maintaining cognitive health and performance. Here's the lowdown on what happens to your brain as you age—plus, 14 brilliant tips to help keep your brain younger.

What happens to your brain as you age?

Those of us who attempt to minimize the telltale signs of aging—gray hairs accompanied by laugh lines and crinkly eyes—know that time waits for no one.

And our brains are no exception; like the rest of us, our noggins age and change with us, which can affect several aspects of cognitive health and performance. When those changes are extensive, they can increase the risk of developing Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia.

While they are subtle, there's nothing fun about noticing changes that include:

  • Fumbling to find the right word or to recall your grandchildren's names
  • Memory loss and the struggle to remember details like where your car keys are
  • Difficulty multitasking
  • Shattered focused and foggy thoughts

It's common to think that a mental decline is inevitable. Of course, throwing caution to the wind and not caring for our brain health isn't the answer. But let's take a step back and see what's happening behind the scenes that cause those frustrating changes.

A peek into your aging brain

Ah, to be young again! Simply put, a younger brain is faster than a more mature one at processing all the external and internal stimuli that reach it as we go through our day. As we enter our 30s and 40s, our brains start to shrink, and that shrinkage rapidly increases by the age of 60. The reduction in tissue mass and volume causes a shift in areas associated with learning, memory, and other complex mental activities.

These physical and structural changes include:

  • Lower brain volume

    —As you age, your brain shrinks—in particular, the frontal lobe and hippocampus, which are responsible for cognitive functions like thinking, learning, and memory.
  • Decreased connections

    —Connections between your neurons also lessen with age, which may play a role in changes to your memory and function.
  • Slower communication between neurons

    —Another culprit behind slower cognition: changes in your myelinated nerve fibers. Neurons have long branches wrapped within a sheath of protein and fat that facilitate electrical impulses to and from nerve cells; when those fibers change, you simply may not think as quickly as you did when you were younger.
  • Disrupted neurotransmitters

    —Neurotransmitters are how your brain cells communicate; as you age, the brain produces different levels of these brain chemicals, affecting cognitive function.

Meet Your Brain(s)

The expression, "I'm of two minds on this" takes on new meaning when you realize that indeed, you do have two brains: a "new" brain, and an "old" brain.
The new brain, or cerebral cortex, can be divided into two hemispheres (left and right) and four lobes. Different parts of the cortex get activated as you spend time with loved ones, work on a puzzle, read a book, savor wine, cook or play the guitar:

  • Frontal lobes

    —Located just behind your forehead, the frontal lobes regulate personality and social behavior, complex mental activities like planning, organizing, controlling your response or reaction to stimuli, voluntary movement and expressive language.
  • Parietal lobes

    —Toward the top-back part of your head are your parietal lobes. This area of your brain is responsible for integrating the sensory perception of stimuli. So, whether you're enjoying the feeling of fuzzy socks on your feet, smelling freshly baked cookies, or listening to your favorite song, thank your parietal lobe.
  • Occipital lobes

    —Sitting at the back of your head, your occipital lobes are responsible for your visual perception, including color, form and motion.
  • Temporal lobes

    —These lobes sit behind your ears and help you process sound, emotions, language, and certain aspects of memory and visual perception.

So, what about your "old" brain? You may know this as the reptilian brain. It's in charge of vital functions such as your heartbeat, breathing, digestion, body temperature and balance. The old brain consists of the brain stem and cerebellum, which connect the cerebral cortex to the rest of the body.

What causes your brain to age faster?

In addition to racking up years (and wisdom) as you go through life, other factors like nutrition, how much you move, how well you rest and how you manage stress also influence your cognitive abilities. In other words, our daily habits, the little things we do every day, greatly impact brain function.

So, if your meals consist of highly processed foods, baked goods, and saturated fats, or you spend most of your day merging into your couch, then you are in route to faster cognitive decline—even if you're still in your 20s! (And forget mental agility by the time you reach your 60s!)

Keep your brain young: 14 neurohacks

It's never too late to start building better habits that will keep your memory and other cognitive functions in tip-top shape. Unsure where to start? Here are 14 neurohacks—some of which actually may lower the risk of age-related cognitive decline that can result in Alzheimer's and dementia.

1. Make sure brain food is on the menu

It's true: you can eat your way to a healthier brain! Having balanced meals with nutrient-dense foods like vegetables, leafy greens, lean meats, healthy fats and low dairy is a surefire way to help keep that noggin young and healthy. Consider following Mediterranean-style eating patterns like the MIND diet, which focus on adding wholesome foods in every meal.

It's also important to reduce or avoid high-calorie, high-saturated, and high-sugar foods. Research shows these foods promote inflammation and oxidative stress in cerebral cortex areas (like the prefrontal lobe and hippocampus) associated with learning, memory, critical thinking, and more.

The following nutrients are known to support cognitive health:

  • Magnesium

    —This mighty mineral facilitates communication between your brain and the rest of your body. Research also shows it confers protection against excessive stimulation of neurons (which can ultimately lead to cognitive decline.) In particular, magnesium L-threonate is a no-brainer for cognitive health. This form of magnesium can easily cross the blood-brain barrier, providing more magnesium to the brain where it helps support and enhance brain function.
  • Fish oil

    —Here's why eating fish at least twice a week is so important: omega-3 fatty acids are essential for a sharp mind. Omega-3s like EPA and DHA are concentrated in the brain and are crucial for nerve growth, function and plasticity. Research shows that omega-3s can help slow the brain's aging, supporting a younger mental profile.
  • Sage

    —Several studies show this ancient herb has cognitive-enhancing properties which promote brain health and performance.
  • Curcumin

    —The golden spice does more than add flavor to your meals. Emerging research shows the well-known flavonoid has anti-inflammatory properties, which is significantly beneficial for memory, learning, and other cognitive skills.
  • L-theanine

    —The calming effects of l-theanine, green tea's well-known amino acid, can help reduce stress and anxiety by modulating neurotransmitter signaling.

Pro tip: For a full list of nutrition-driven hacks and brain-friendly nutrients, check out Life Extension's protocol about Nutritional Neurohacking.

2. Postpone retirement

We see retirement as the coveted prize after years of hard work; who doesn't want to spend long days idly lounging about the beach after decades of the nine-to-five grind? But if you're among the hard-working Americans looking forward to retiring before the age of 65, you may want to reconsider. Research shows that delaying retirement may also help delay your brain's aging.

3. Learn new skills

Once you're familiar with your environment and new activities become "second nature," your mind can pay attention to other things and form new connections. These shortcuts can shortchange your brain health, however, by depriving it of new stimulation.

But where should you start? Challenging yourself in an art class, taking dancing lessons, or learning a new language (Pro tip: Complement your Spanish class by watching your favorite Disney movie in Spanish for movie night!). In other words, being willing to suck at new skills (like playing an instrument) as a way to learn is a terrific way to prompt new neural connections and help keep that noggin young.

4. Work up a sweat

If you thought exercise was just about keeping your body healthy, surprise! Having a regular exercise routine is terrific for keeping your memory sharp and your mind younger! When you engage in aerobic fitness exercises, the kind that get you sweating and breathing heavy, you're sending newly oxygenated blood and nutrients to your brain. Why does this matter? First, it encourages neuroplasticity, your brain's ability to build and strengthen neural connections. Second, regular physical activity prompts the production of new neuronal cells. Plus, exercise also helps you have better focus and improved productivity!

The best part? You don't have to spend long hours at the gym, leaving jelly-legged and red-faced. Whether you prefer swimming, skating, running or your Zumba class, dedicating 30 to 40 minutes a day at least five days a week is all it takes.

Pro tip: Mix it up! Target and tone large muscle groups with weightlifting and resistance training exercises at least twice a week!

5. Spend time in nature

Nature is medicine. There's a reason we feel calm and renewed when we spend time amongst trees, listening to birds sing and breathing in fresh air. A large body of research shows how nature can positively impact your mental health. Plus, taking a break from the hustle and bustle of a busy day (even briefly), can boost levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin which can get depleted with the draining demands of those go-go-go days.

6. Hit the sheets

It's not a secret that having sex has health benefits, and boosting brain health and activity is one of them! What's more, research shows sexual activity is associated with higher memory and executive function test scores in older adults. So, make time for "sexy time" with your significant other. You'll strengthen your relationship and enjoy the benefits of better cognition—it's a win, win!

7. Watch your glucose levels

We know high blood sugar levels are bad for our health. Research shows that high glucose levels are linked to a higher risk of Alzheimer's disease in our old age. So, keeping balanced blood sugar levels may help protect your brain against the risk of developing Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia.

8. Keep your ticker healthy

Blood pressure is the force your arteries and veins use to circulate blood throughout your body and to your brain. If it's unmanaged, it can significantly impact the health and integrity of your vessels, impact your delicate neurons, and result in changes in your brain. Plus, studies show that maintaining cardiovascular health—including healthy blood pressure, heart rate and health cholesterol levels—may help lower the risk of dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases.

9. Prioritize your emotional health

A happy mind is a healthy one. By that same token, research shows that depressive symptoms are strongly linked with a decline in mental agility and cognitive skills. This is because anxious thoughts prompt the overactivity of the stress response. Researchers suggest a plausible reason could be the overproduction of stress hormones like cortisol, which affects areas of the brain associated with learning, memory, and processing.

So how do you learn to put your emotional needs first? Avoid (or limit) emotionally draining situations and people, get good at saying "no," and carve out time for self-care. Talking through your worries with a professional can help.

10. Cultivate mindfulness

In that same vein, we can't overstate how important it is to establish strategies for managing stress. Your stress response may have a negative reputation, but it's truly unmanaged stress that's the villain. Studies show adding meditation to your daily routine has brain-boosting benefits.

Pro tip: Learning how to calm the mind in stressful situations not only will help you manage the immediate concern—it will help keep your brain limber in the long term!

11. Don't skimp on sleep

Restful, uninterrupted sleep is crucial for learning for turning those short-term memories into lasting ones. Research shows that getting at least seven hours of quality sleep is the "sweet spot" to maintaining optimal brain health. And research also shows that insufficient sleep is linked to impaired brain function.

12. Make time for social connections

Studies show that spending time with others is strongly associated with a slower decline in mental health and performance. Enjoying a hearty meal with family and loved ones, going out to happy hours with your coworkers, or making time for your book club are all terrific ways to strengthen your social connections. Even catching up with your bestie living abroad on FaceTime can be beneficial to your brain health.

13. Limit tobacco & alcohol

Ok, this one is a no-brainer (pardon the pun). We all know the harmful effects of excess tobacco and alcohol consumption on our well-being. As for what these habits do your noggin: they can speed up the aging of your brain, leading to faster decline in mental abilities.

14. Mind your head safety

Helmets and other protective gear may look a bit silly, but their role in protecting your head while skating or riding a bike is invaluable. Concussions and other brain injuries are not always life-threatening, but their effect on your brain can be severe. And, more often than not, those effects only become apparent as you age. So protect that valuable asset between your ears to keep your brain healthy for many years to come!

About the Author: Jessica Monge has a bachelor's degree in biological sciences & neuroscience and a master's degree in comparative studies and related languages from Florida Atlantic University. She worked as a tutor, freelance writer and editor before joining Life Extension, where she is currently a Digital Content Writer.