8 ways to keep your brain healthy, from doing crossword puzzles to limiting alcohol

brain healthy

Taking steps to ensure your brain is healthy and sharp isn’t something only older people need to prioritize, Dawn C. Carr, a professor of sociology and co-director of Aging Research on Contexts, Health and Inequalities at Florida State University, tells Yahoo Life. “It’s something we have to be thinking about at every stage of life,” she says. Habits that help keep your brain healthy not only reduce risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, adds Dr. Dawn Ericsson, chief medical officer at AgeRejuvenation, but they also preserve independence, promise better quality of life and promote overall well-being and longevity.

Here, experts share the actionable steps you can take to protect your brain and keep it sharp for as long as possible.

Give your brain a workout

Games such as memory matching, puzzles and word searches are like bicep curls for your brain. Why? They “help stimulate neural connections and keep your brain sharp,” Ericsson tells Yahoo Life. The key point is to learn new things and consistently challenge yourself in new ways, she adds, which can also be accomplished with activities such as reading or playing an instrument.

If you already do the daily New York Times crossword, Connections or Wordle puzzles, keep up the good work. A 2022 study found crossword puzzles to be particularly effective in improving memory and preventing brain shrinkage in people with mild cognitive impairment.

Regardless of what your brain game of choice is, “a good way to know if you’re pushing your cognitive capacity is to reflect on whether you’re a little uncomfortable,” Carr says. “Doing things that you’re not good at like learning how to dance, or learning to write poetry or learning a new language are all cognitively complex activities that help protect your brain.”

Eat a Mediterranean diet

Like the rest of your body, your brain needs nutrients to thrive. Studies show people who follow a Mediterranean diet — which consists mostly of fish, fruits, vegetables, olive oil and whole grains — are less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease, so that eating plan is a good place to start. However, Carr says that everyone is different, and because of that there “isn’t a perfect ‘brain food’ to solve problems.”

Still, it’s never a bad idea to prioritize fruits and vegetables (which have been shown to improve general health outcomes), as well as foods high in antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins, Ericsson suggests. “Limit processed foods, sugary snacks and saturated fats, as they can negatively impact brain health,” she says.

Also, both Ericsson and Carr say it’s super important to limit alcohol consumption as well. Research shows that alcohol can shrink overall brain volume and that even low levels of alcohol consumption is linked to premature brain aging. So drinking less than daily is preferred. (Need some help cutting back? Here are six tips to scale back your alcohol intake.)

Move your body too

Research shows that physical activity — even just light exercise, such as cleaning the house and running errands — reduces dementia risk. “Physical exercise has been linked to improved brain health,” says Ericsson. “Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week, along with strength training exercises. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, promotes the growth of new neurons and enhances cognitive function.”

If you can’t get in the full 150 minutes per week, know that even shorter amounts count. “Even 20 to 30 minutes of walking each day is good enough, but if you only have 15, do that,” says Carr.

Make sure your blood pressure is under control

According to the National Institutes of Health, the brain receives 20% of the body's blood supply, which delivers oxygen and nutrients. That means uncontrolled high blood pressure can damage the brain by reducing or blocking blood flow, restricting its fuel. If your blood pressure is high, talk to your health care provider about ways to lower those levels, such as eating a well-balanced, low-salt diet, exercising regularly, limiting alcohol and managing stress, as recommended by the American Heart Association.

Stay hydrated

Water accounts for 75% of brain mass, so it makes sense that dehydration would throw a wrench in your brain’s ability to function. One 2023 study found dehydration to reduce cognitive function in overweight adults over a two-year period. Many people aren’t getting enough. A new Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that 25% of U.S. adults say they drink one or two glasses of water a day — and 8% rarely or never drink it.

So how much water should you be drinking? According to the National Academy of Medicine (NAM), the daily recommendation is nine glasses (or 2.2 liters total) of water per day for women and 13 glasses (or 3 liters total) for men.

Get plenty of sleep

There’s a reason you feel unfocused and frazzled when you’ve had a rough night’s sleep. That’s because rest is crucial for brain health. “Sleep feeds the brain,” Dr. Sulagna Misra, primary care doctor and founder of Misra Wellness in Encino, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. Sleep is also the time during which memories are processed and stored. “When you don't get sleep, it can affect your brain health significantly,” she says. “My patients that work nights suffer quite a bit. They have brain fog because they're working against their biological clock.”

Ericsson recommends aiming to get between seven and nine hours of quality sleep each night. “Establish a regular sleep schedule, create a relaxing bedtime routine and ensure your sleep environment is comfortable and conducive to restful sleep,” she says. (Struggling with sleep? These six tips can help.)

Stay social

“Learning to make meaningful connections and build meaningful relationships is critical to our mental health and, in turn, our cognitive health,” says Carr. In fact, one large 2023 study of over 12,000 participants found that loneliness and isolation can increase the risk of dementia by upwards of 40%.

“We should prioritize cultivation of friendships, high-quality family relationships and regular engagement with people that help us feel like we are a part of something bigger than ourselves,” Carr adds. “It has important benefits to our brain health and our well-being at all ages.”

Keep your stress in check

It goes without saying that stress is not good for your brain, or any other part of your body. Moving your body such as taking a brisk walk in nature as well as getting a good night’s sleep and practicing relaxation exercises like deep breathing and meditation all can help lower stress levels. But if you find that it still affects your memory and attention, Misra says it’s worth giving your mental health the extra care it needs. “Generally, this is either mental or emotional work, maybe with a therapist, psychiatrist or maybe it needs some medication to get you through a stressful time,” she says. “Then, generally, your brain functions a little better."