7 ways to protect your brain—and your thinking power


NFL players aren’t the only ones trying to avoid head injuries and other causes of dementia. Here’s what you can do.

With football season in full swing, coaches, families, and researchers are focused on keeping young players safe from head injuries. Whether playing for the NFL or Little League, evidence shows that a concussion may harm an athlete’s thinking abilities—both immediately and long-term. In fact, head injuries suffered in youth have been linked to increased risk for dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, in old age.

But sports injuries aren’t the only threat to healthy brains. Lack of exercise, poor diet, medication overuse, and more can also put brain health at risk.  So people of all ages and walks of life can take steps to preserve their brainpower over the long haul.

Dr. Eric B. Larson, executive director of Group Health Research Institute (GHRI) and a leading international expert on healthy aging, offers seven tips for protecting your brain. Together, these strategies may even help you sidestep dementia as you age—or at least postpone its onset until the last year or two of life. 

1. Control your risk for heart problems.

Cardiovascular risks—including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and abnormal heart rhythm—can raise your risk for dementias like Alzheimer’s disease.  So do what you can to control such conditions by eating a healthy diet, not smoking, and getting regular physical activity. A study Group Health Research Institute published in 2006—and others later replicated—showed that people who exercised three or more times a week had a 30–40 percent lower risk for developing dementia than did those who exercised less.

2. Moderate or avoid alcohol consumption.

Experts disagree on how moderate alcohol consumption affects brain health, but long-term overuse is clearly harmful, leading to cognitive impairment. That’s just one of many good reasons to drink moderately if at all. Guidelines commonly define “moderate” as one drink a day for women, two for men.

3. Avoid overmedication and drug interactions.

Stay informed about any drugs you take—prescription and over the counter—especially those you take long-term for chronic conditions. Avoid dangerous interactions and being overmedicated, which can cause memory problems and dementia. GHRI and the University of Washington (UW) researchers discovered in 2015, for example, that a class of drugs called anticholinergics—including certain common antidepressants, bladder drugs, and antihistamines—are linked to a slightly higher chance of developing dementia. Should you avoid these drugs because of the risk? Discuss this question with your doctor, weighing the pros and cons, and read our FAQ.

4. Avoid a high-sugar diet.

Research has long shown that high blood sugar due to diabetes can raise your risk for many health problems, including Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. But in 2013, a GHRI/UW research team discovered that high blood sugar raises your risk for these conditions—even without diabetes. That’s one more reason to avoid food and drinks high in sugar, such as sweetened sodas.

5. Limit stress—particularly as you grow older.

Elderly people especially can have a hard time adapting to big changes in their lives. One reason is that cortisol, a hormone secreted when you’re under stress, has a stronger effect on older brains, challenging an elderly person’s ability to recover from emotional upset. Knowing this, it’s best for older people to take change slowly and learn ways to cope with anxiety or tension.

6. Get the sleep you need.

Research has shown that inadequate sleep is linked to slower thinking and more risk for dementia. Individual needs vary greatly—but most guidelines recommend getting seven to nine hours of sleep a night. Frequent trouble sleeping does not mean you need to take sleeping pills for insomnia. Such drugs can actually worsen cognitive problems. You may simply need to develop habits that can help your body settle down at night, like keeping your bedroom quiet, dark, and cool.

7. Avoid all types of head injury. 

Protect your head from bumps and bruises by wearing a strong helmet when biking, skiing, skating, or participating in other sports. Drive safely to prevent traffic accidents. And avert falls:

  • Wear glasses or contact lens if you need them.
  • Wear lace-up or Velcro shoes with solid heel support.
  • Wear shoes indoors rather than walking barefoot or in your stocking feet.
  • Avoid medications or alcoholic beverages that make you unsteady or dizzy.
  • Use a cane or walker if you need it.
  • Clear your home of trip hazards like electrical cords, loose rugs, slippery bathing surfaces, and poorly lit walkways.

Find out how scientists in the joint GHRI/UW ACT study keep learning about the brain and aging.  And learn how GHRI works with partners at UW, the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and elsewhere to find ways to build, protect, and maintain healthy brains


by Joan DeClaire

Healthy Aging


Healthy aging: Never too early—or too late

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