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Here are some simple, evidence-based steps that can significantly protect your brain

Sure, we all want to keep our brains healthy as long as possible. But can we? Isn’t our brain health really out of our control, e.g., “Isn't cognitive decline a normal part of aging?”

Turns out, according to Dr. Marc Milstein, a neuroscience researcher, we may have more control over the health of our brain than we realize. His research found that it may be possible to keep our brain's age younger than our chronological age, e.g., if we’re 50, we could have the brain health of a 40-year-old.

So how can we keep our brains young and healthy? And, if it’s doable, is it too difficult?

The good news is that Dr. Milstein has outlined easy, practical tips below that are easy to do and can help keep your brain in tip-top shape.

  1. Sleep
  2. Food
  3. Stress
  4. Exercise
  5. Cross-Train
  6. Friendship

Sleep: Your Greatest Ally in the Fight to Preserve Your Brain 

Sleep Cycles

When we sleep, we go through three stages of sleep that make up a 90-minute cycle.

Each cycle creates various levels of brain electricity:

  1. Light sleep: Electrical activity is similar to the amount when you’re awake
  2. Deep sleep: Very low electrical activity relative to light and REM sleep
  3. REM sleep: (Rapid eye movement) sleep: A higher level of electrical activity than when you’re awake


7-9 hours/night

Most people need between seven and nine hours of sleep for optimal brain health, but the number of hours is specific to you.

There’s a rare group of people who can function at high physical and mental levels on significantly less sleep. They’re called “short sleepers” and likely account for less than 1 percent of the population.1 Some people who think they’re short sleepers are actually sleep deprived—which makes them vulnerable to all the issues that come with lack of sleep.

If you’re sleeping more than nine hours a night, you should be evaluated by a physician. Excess sleep can be a sign of conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and depression, and can raise the risk of memory issues, back and neck pain, and obesity.

  1. Sleep in True Darkness
    Is your bedroom completely dark or just kind of dark? Bedrooms are often filled with cell phones, nightlights, televisions, and computers.
  2. The little bits of light they emit can keep your brain from reaching the deepest, brain-boosting levels of sleep. Unplug these devices before bed or put them in another room. You could also hang blackout shades and curtains.
  1. Chill Out for Better Sleep2
    Most people find it easier to fall asleep in a cool room, and it has to do with your sleep cycle. The first phase of the sleep cycle, light sleep, lasts about 20-30 minutes.
  2. During this time your brain lowers your core body temperature to transition from light sleep to deep sleep. Slightly reducing the temperature of your bedroom can help you reach deeper, brain-boosting sleep.
  1. Get Out Early
    Prepare for a good night’s sleep by getting natural light first thing in the morning. Spending 10-15 minutes outside walking your dog, checking the mail, or taking a stroll around the block will set your brain clock.

You Are What You Eat (And So Is Your Brain)

Your gut is a lot like a second brain. It contains 500-million brain cells that communicate with your brain. This communication is called your gut-brain axis. What happens in the gut can impact mood, memory, and how we age.

What we eat can calm or increase inflammation, help us lose or make us gain weight, and even improve our brain function.

Research points to a Mediterranean-type diet as being optimal for brain health. This diet is filled with fruits and vegetables, bursting with beans, nuts, and whole grains, and features fish, seafood, and healthy fats such as olive oil. The Mediterranean diet lowers the risk of Alzheimer’s disease even in those with a genetic risk factor for the disease.

  1. What to eat
    A Mediterranean diet is relatively easy to follow. Diets that are too strict generally aren’t sustainable for the long term. Instead of limiting the foods you love, you can add heart- and-brain healthy foods by making key substitutions and additions. Just make sure you include these five items (or most of them) in your shopping cart. If you’re already consuming most of them, you’re headed in the right direction:
  • Fruits and Vegetables: Leafy greens like kale, spinach, and brussels sprouts. Colorful produce like eggplant, bell peppers, tomatoes, blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries
  • Fish: Cold water fish: Salmon, herring, mackerel, cod, trout, tuna
  • Beans: Red kidney beans and pinto beans
  • Nuts: Walnuts, pine nuts, pistachios, and almonds
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  1. What not to eat
    Results of a study published in the journal Neurology suggest that combining processed meat such as sausage or cured meat with a starchy carbohydrate such as a potato or sugary snack increases the risk of dementia.3
    You might be saying, “You’re taking away everything that I love to eat!” Don’t despair! In that same study, when people ate heart- and-brain healthy foods at the same time as highly processed/sugary foods, it helped lower their risk for dementia.10

The Stress Surprise

We hear it all the time: Stress is bad. But some stress is good for you because it focuses the brain and can even slow down brain aging. How do we find the right amount of stress to keep our brains and immune systems running like finely tuned Ferraris?

A study found that stress and unhappiness can be caused by our minds wandering. When our minds wander, they often go to unhappy, stressful, and anxious thoughts about the past or future. An antidote to this is being present, which is associated with greater happiness and less stress.

One way to be present is to practice mindfulness. A Harvard study asked people who’d never practiced mindfulness to do so for 30 minutes a day for eight weeks. Pictures of participants’ brains were taken before they started, during the eight weeks, and after.4

Throughout the study, the participants’ brains changed. The hippocampus grew—that’s the part of your brain that allows you to learn new things. The prefrontal cortex got stronger and longer—that’s the part that calms your stress response. And the amygdala shrank—that’s the part that manages our fight-or-flight stress response.

We can’t control much of what surrounds us, but we can gradually become experts at managing stress.

  1. Breathing Exercise
    There are many mindfulness exercises, and they often involve breathing. Here’s one that’s simple and effective.
  1. Say to yourself or out loud, “breathe in calmness” and inhale through your nose
  2. Say “breathe out anxiety” and exhale through your mouth
  3. Try to focus on the breath going in your nose and out of your mouth
  4. If you’re having trouble focusing, place your hand on your stomach and pay attention to your breathing for five seconds. Feel the rise and fall of your abdomen with each breath.

If 30 seconds feels like a long time, that’s okay; it may take practice. If you can do 30 seconds, try to add another 30 seconds tomorrow. Think of it like lifting weights and increasing your reps.

  1. Change Your Perspective
    Stress can be quite useful—and you can train yourself to view stress in that light.
  2. Even a bit of stress from sitting in traffic or standing in line at the grocery store can be beneficial.5 These bursts of acute stress can be healthy for the brain. So next time you’re in the “10 items or less” lane at the grocery store, and the person in front of you has 30 items, thank them, and shift your perspective on stress as something that can be beneficial.
  1. Rose, Thorn, Bud
    Take a moment and think of the best thing that happened in the last 24 hours. That’s your rose. Next, think of the most challenging part of the previous 24 hours. That’s your thorn. Now think of something specific you are looking forward to in the next 24 hours. That’s your bud. This technique was shown in a 2019 study to be an effective means to manage stress and boost happiness.6

Get Moving

Exercise is like a miracle drug for the brain. If a drug generated the same brain benefits that exercise does, there would be lines stretching miles long to obtain it.


Lowers Risk of Dementia

A study at Cardiff University in the UK found that simply walking 30 minutes a day lowered the risk of dementia by about 65 percent.7 Those 30 minutes didn’t even have to be done consecutively.

Similarly, another study asked 50-year-old women to use an exercise bike, then placed them in four categories based on endurance. The categories ranged from “high physical fitness” to “could not finish the fitness test.” Forty years later the researchers found:

  1. 5 percent of the women in the high physical fitness category developed dementia
  2. 25 percent of the women in the moderate and low fitness categories developed dementia
  3. 45 percent of the women who couldn’t finish the fitness test developed dementia

Women who were classified as highly physically fit at 50 years old were 90 percent less likely to develop dementia than the group that couldn’t finish the test.


Improves Memory

A study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease investigated two groups of adults age 60 and older. For a year, the group did aerobic exercises while the other group just stretched. Afterward, the aerobic exercise group showed a whopping 47 percent average increase in memory scores while the stretching group saw no memory improvement.


Small Changes Can Make a Big Difference

How much exercise is required to protect your brain? Do you need to drop everything and train for a triathlon? Fortunately, no. It turns out even small changes can have a big impact. The next time you’re given a choice between stairs and an elevator or escalator, consider this: A study found that people ages 19-79 who consistently took the stairs had a younger-looking brain.8

  1. Cue: Setup Visual Reminders
    Exercise becomes a habit when we make it a default behavior. We can set up a cue that drives us to take action to stick to an exercise program.
  2. Placing your walking shoes where you can’t miss them will remind you to take your daily walk. A smartwatch that reminds you of your steps can be another visual cue.
  1. Start Small
    When it comes to exercise, it’s best to start small and build.
  2. For example:
  • Walk in place during TV commercials or before the next episode of a program you’re streaming
  • Stand and/or walk during phone calls
  • Park farther away from the grocery store
  • Do 10 jumping jacks every hour (you can set your smartphone to remind you to do this)
  1. Reward: Do Something You Enjoy
    Exercise must be fun and rewarding, or you likely won’t make it a habit. Pairing exercise with something you enjoy can be very helpful, such as exploring a new hiking trail or learning a new sport.
  2. Variety is the spice of life—especially when it comes to fitness. The body can acclimate to the same activity, and results will diminish. The same is true of the brain. Keep your workouts fun and fresh.
  1. Support: Find a Workout Buddy
    Active participation in a team sport has clear brain health benefits.9 Not just playing but socializing boosts the brain. If team sports aren’t your thing, find a workout buddy to keep you company—and accountable.
  2. You’re going to have challenges when you’re establishing your exercise habit but stick with it. If you can’t fit in a 40-minute walk, three short (think 10-15 minute) walks a day can reap significant brain benefits.

Cross-Train Your Brain

Hopefully, by reading this workbook, you’ve learned some new information. That very action was protecting your brain: learning new information plays a significant part in disposing of brain trash via a “power wash” that uses one of your body’s most effective brain cleansers: norepinephrine.


Norepinephrine Takes Out the Trash

Norepinephrine is a hormone and neurotransmitter that regulates heart rate, attention, memory, and cognition.10 Maintaining a healthy brain and strong memory is not all about Sudoku, crossword puzzles, and brain games. Those can be fun, and they have brain benefits, but they aren’t the only things we can do for brain exercise. 

When you learn something new, your brain squirts norepinephrine from a brain structure called the locus coeruleus.11 The norepinephrine breaks up the waste and trash in your brain so it can be excreted when you sleep. This keeps your brain young, healthy, and able to make new connections.


Myelination Speeds Up Processing

Learning helps produce new myelin, a coating around your brain cells that makes the electrical signals travel faster. Myelin is like the insulation you see around an electrical wire. The thicker the myelin coating gets, the more easily you can learn new things.


Embrace the Challenge of Learning

Learning a new language or a musical instrument is good for your brain. A study found that being bilingual or a musician at any age made the brain more efficient in day-to-day memory tasks.12 But to get a real good spray of norepinephrine, embrace the challenge, and sometimes frustration of learning something new.


  1. Mix It Up
    Approach learning something new the way you would fitness training. For instance, you wouldn’t go to the gym and only exercise your forearms. You want to work out different muscles on different days and work on your aerobic fitness as well as building muscle. The same goes for the brain. Learning a language or a musical instrument versus a sport exercises different parts of the brain. You can cross-train your brain by mixing mental and physical learning activities.
  2. Try the Pomodoro Method
    This time-management technique was developed in the late 1980s. To try it, begin by eliminating all distractions: silence your cell phone and put it out of sight along with any other distractions. Set a timer (not on your cell phone!) for 20 minutes and focus on just one important task. If your mind wanders, bring it back to your task. Commit to 20 minutes of distraction-free work.
  3. Take a five-minute break and do it again. If you’re having trouble reaching 20 minutes without distraction, try just 10 minutes. Increase the time until you hit 20 minutes of pure focus. You can go past 20 minutes but that’s the minimum. There’s no magic formula for the number of reps you do, as it’s based on how much work you need to get done.
    Don’t forget that five-minute break, though. Your brain needs a little distraction to reengage focus; it can be as simple as standing up and walking around the room or a quick stretch.
  4. Put Away Your Phone Our phones are amazing, wonderful, and powerful, but they can be a distraction. The information on them can be important and meaningful or it can be a waste of time.
  5. Just seeing your phone can be enough to make your brain wonder what you’re missing—did you just get a text message, a post, or an email? This kind of distraction can have a significant impact on your brain performance.
    If you want to get in the deepest levels of learning focus, place your phone (or computer or tablet) out of sight, so it is out of mind.

Friendships Can Help Protect Your Brain

Can going to a dinner party preserve your memory? People over fifty-five who regularly participated in, or hosted, dinner parties or other social events had a lower risk of losing their memories.13 It wasn’t because of what they ate or where they went; it was the effect of the repeated social connection with other people.

How important is social interaction to our mental and physical health? We’re used to hearing about the dangers of smoking and obesity, but loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day, making it worse for us than obesity.14

Additionally, loneliness is associated with poorer decision-making, attention, cognitive ability, and brain shrinking and aging.15

It’s normal to feel lonely from time to time, but there’s a greater risk of loneliness as we age, as family and friends pass and children move away. That persistent loneliness makes us feel socially isolated.

  1. Spend Time With Family and Friends (Especially Friends)
    A study investigated whether people find more joy in being with their friends or family. (In this study, family was defined as people who share a home.) They found people were happier when they spent time with their friends instead of family.16
  2. One reason people didn’t feel the same happiness and joy with family members that they did with their friends involved how they spent time together. Activities with family members were more likely to involve chores: doing laundry, washing dishes, taking out the trash, doing housework, and paying bills.
    We tend to reserve fun activities for our friends. We need to try to ensure that family time isn’t just about chores and to-do lists.
  3. Get a Hearing Check
    People with mild untreated hearing loss are twice as likely to develop dementia than those without hearing loss. Those with severe loss are five times as likely to develop dementia.17
  4. There are a few reasons for this connection between hearing and memory loss. First, hearing loss can lead to social isolation and a lack of engagement and learning.
    There’s also a theory that hearing loss causes changes in brain activity that can promote abnormal proteins that are the hallmark of brain trash.18
    Using a hearing aid doesn’t just improve hearing, it protects the brain, too. If you know someone who needs a hearing aid but is resisting getting one, you can tell them they aren’t just improving their hearing; they’re also protecting their brain.

Author Headshot

Dr. Marc Milstein is a leading scientific researcher on neuroscience, health, and happiness. His insights provide science-based solutions to keep the brain healthy, lower the risk of dementia, boost productivity and maximize longevity. He earned both his Ph.D. in Biological Chemistry and his Bachelor of Science in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology from UCLA. 

Dr. Milstein’s new book “The Age-Proof Brain” has been a #1 best seller on Amazon in several categories, including, Aging, Longevity, and Neuroscience.

Talk to your financial professional about how brain health could affect your finances

1 Renata Pellegrino et al., “A Novel BHLHE41 Variant is Associated with Short Sleep and Resistance to Sleep Deprivation in Humans,” Sleep 37, no. 8 (2014): 1327–1336, https://doi.org/10.5665/sleep.3924.

2 Kazue Okamoto-Mizuno and Koh Mizuno, “Effects of thermal environment on sleep and circadian rhythm,” Journal of Physiological Anthropology 31, no. 14, (May 31, 2012), https://doi.org/10.1186/1880-6805-31-14.


The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author, who is not affiliated with Hartford Funds. If you are concerned about your brain health or cognitive function, it’s a good idea to speak with your doctor or a healthcare professional, who can evaluate your cognitive function and provide recommendations for management and treatment, if necessary


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