In a viral TikTok video with more than 10 million views, neuroscience PhD student Emily McDonald discusses three things she does each day to protect her brain – stay off her phone in the morning, think positive thoughts, and avoid processed foods.
The advice McDonald gives in her video isn't bad advice, two neuroscientists told Insider. But there's a lot more to keeping the brain healthy and the science behind it.
Jason Shepherd, an associate professor of neurobiology at the University of Utah, and Talia Lerner, an assistant professor of neuroscience at Northwestern University, told Insider what they do to keep their brains healthy.
1. Catch some zzzz's
Practicing good sleep hygiene and getting six to eight hours of sleep each night is one of the best things you can do for your brain health, Shepherd told Insider. He aims to get about six to seven hours of shut-eye a night.
Sleep helps the brain process new information, form memories, reinforce new concepts and ideas, and remove toxic buildup of proteins known as amyloid plaques that commonly accumulate in the brains of people with Alzheimers's.
Sleep also helps boost brain plasticity, the brain's ability to adapt to new situations and experiences. And the more your brain can adapt to new challenges, the more you can improve and preserve your cognitive function as you age, research has shown.
2. Get your heart pumping
Shepherd said he also exercises daily to keep his brain healthy, since regular exercise increases blood flow to the brain and a strong heart helps pump enough blood to the brain to keep it performing optimally.
The official recommendation from the CDC is 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise, but however and whenever you can get your body moving is better than nothing, Shepherd said.
For him, this usually means walking his dogs a couple miles once or twice a day and refereeing rugby games on the weekends.
3. Go to lunch with a friend
Loneliness can harm a person's mental health, emotional wellbeing, and brain health, so it's important to stay connected to others, Lerner said.
"In general, people with strong social networks tend to live longer," Lerner said. "Spending time with other people is good for your emotional life, which is good for brain health."
But staying connected to others can be a challenge, especially as you age, Lerner said. With friends scattered across the country, Lerner said she uses social media and messaging apps to help her stay in touch with loved ones.
She also regularly volunteers at her kids' school as a way to meet other parents in her community.
"Even if you don't have kids, volunteer work is rewarding and good for you," Lerner said.
4. Try new things
Exposing yourself to new people, places, and challenges can keep your mind sharp, improve brain plasticity and strengthen your brain, Shepherd said.
Shepherd practices this in his life by traveling to new places and experiencing other cultures. He also enjoys pursuing hobbies outside his work as a researcher and professor, like photography and listening to classical music.
But trying new things doesn't necessarily mean you need to spend money traveling or take up a new hobby.
It can be as simple as attempting a difficult puzzle you haven't done before or putting yourself in new social settings where your brain can learn to adapt to different people.
"I think a lot of us get into routines and habits where we're doing the same old thing each day," Shepherd said. "But learning new things helps with brain plasticity, and if you are able to keep using your brain in new ways, you can have better mental outcomes as you age."
5. Eat a healthy, well-rounded diet
As McDonald points out in her TikTok, processed food has been linked to cognitive decline and an increased risk of dementia.
Many studies have shown highly processed foods, like packaged goods or french fries, can negatively impact overall health and increase the risk of health conditions, like diabetes, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure.
These diseases affect different organs in different ways, but can generally harm the entire body, including your brain.
"If you have high blood pressure, for instance, you may be at an increased risk for issues with the brain, like stroke or vascular dementia," Lerner said. "So there are many reasons why highly processed food is bad for you."
To keep your brain and body healthy, limit processed foods and strive to eat a well-rounded diet of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and whole grains.
"Your brain is not somehow totally separate from your body, so things that are helpful for your body are also good for your brain," Lerner said.
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