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10 Daily Habits To Keep Your Brain Sharp as You Age

We hear often that keeping our brain sharp as we age is important for maintaining overall health and cognitive function. But what exactly is cognitive function? It is the mental processes our brains use to think, learn, understand, remember, and solve problems. These functions include attention, perception, memory, language, problem-solving, and decision-making. In simpler terms, cognitive function is the way our brain helps us make sense of the world, process information, and interact with our surroundings.

So, the more often we do things that truly engage our mental abilities (read: avoiding couch potato syndrome), the better off we are as we age. Here are 10 daily habits that can help protect and promote brain health as you age.

  1. Exercise. Engage in regular physical activity to improve blood flow, release endorphins that enhance mood and cognitive function, and promote neuroplasticity. Think of neuroplasticity as the brain’s natural way of adjusting and reshaping itself to help us better navigate and interact with the world.
  2. Eat a healthy diet. Consume a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. The Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet, for example, have both been linked to better brain health. It may be better to think of both of these types of eating as just that—eating plans rather than “diets”, per se. The emphasis is more on healthy eating and less on weight loss. (Although a healthy lifestyle may lead to weight loss.)
  3. Get enough sleep. Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep per night to allow your brain to consolidate memories and repair itself. And do what you can to ensure you get both enough sleep and quality sleep.
  4. Stay socially active. Engage in social activities and maintain strong relationships to reduce stress, boost mood, and promote cognitive health. Many studies have proven both the negative effects of isolation and loneliness on our mental health and the opposite: the positive impact of being sociable.
  5. Challenge your brain. Participate in mentally stimulating activities such as learning a new skill, teaching, or volunteering. People of all ages enjoy problem-solving puzzles such as crosswords or sudoku, but that is just a start. Beyond problem-solving, seek out activities that involve learning, critical thinking and judgment, and memory skills. Think of balancing your cheque book or making a budget, volunteering on a nonprofit board, taking a class, or joining a discussion group (such as a book group). An added brain boost with these types of activities is that they often involve connecting and talking with others.
  6. Manage stress. Stress can have a life-changing impact on our mental and physical well-being. Practice healthy stress-reduction techniques like mindfulness, meditation or yoga to protect your brain from the negative effects of chronic stress. The mental health benefits of being outside in nature are well documented.
  7. Prioritize mental health. Managing stress is not the only element of protecting brain health. Anxiety, fear, sadness and depression all take a toll—in fact, it is easy for these negative feelings to accumulate over time. Seek help from a professional to maintain your cognitive function.
  8. Stay organized. Create routines and use tools like calendars or lists to keep your mind decluttered and focused. Staying organized reduces the amount of mental effort required to remember and track tasks, appointments, and other daily responsibilities. This allows your brain to focus on more important cognitive tasks and reduces the risk of cognitive decline. What is more, you will gain a sense of accomplishment that, in turn, can boost your self-esteem.
  9. Limit alcohol and tobacco use. Excessive alcohol consumption and smoking have been linked to cognitive decline, so it is important to consume alcohol in moderation and avoid smoking altogether. In fact, the most recent research is telling us that no amount of alcohol is healthy for us.
  10. Protect your head. Wear proper headgear during activities that pose a risk of head injury, such as cycling or contact sports, to reduce the risk of brain damage or cognitive decline. Even if you are not active in activities that require a helmet, remember that older adults are more prone to falls, especially around the home. Rid your home of trip hazards, improve lighting in dark areas, and install grab bars where you need them. Be sure to see a doctor after any fall—you may have hit your head without realising it.

Also, remember that memory loss and other declines in our cognitive abilities are not normal signs of aging. “Despite the stereotypes, cognitive decline is not inevitable as you age”, said Sarah Lenz Lock, the executive director of AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health, in speaking with Time magazine.

Vonetta Dotson, associate professor of psychology and gerontology at Georgia State University in the U.S., adds, “Think of your brain like a house. If you take care of it, you can maintain a house for decades. But if you neglect it, you are more likely to have problems over time”.

Besides incorporating these 10 tips into your daily routine, talk to your health care provider right away if you or a loved one notices changes in your cognitive abilities.

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