Written by Josh Horsman
We all sometimes wish for more brain power. Whether we find it hard to concentrate, think on our feet or struggle to remember things, our brains don’t always perform as well as we might like. But is this just ‘the way it is’, or are there steps that we can take to increase our brain power and see noticeable improvements in key cognitive functions?
The simple answer is that scientific research has proven the links between lifestyle factors and the health of the brain. This means that the choices we make on a daily basis affect how well our brain performs. In other words, our lifestyle can have either a positive or a negative effect on our brains depending on whether we make healthy or unhealthy choices each day.
The ‘FINGER Study’, a groundbreaking scientific study investigating the links between lifestyle and cognitive decline found that a healthy lifestyle could prevent or significantly reduce the risk of cognitive decline, and associated conditions like Dementia. The study found four key lifestyle elements which affect brain health: Diet, exercise, social interaction and brain training, while other studies have also highlighted the importance of sleep for impacting brain health.
Focussing on these key lifestyle elements, here’s our guide to boosting your brain power:
Science has long suggested links between the foods we eat and the power of our brains, but in recent years, research has strengthened these links. It is now known that diet plays a key role in helping your brain to function effectively in day-to-day life, and can also help protect your brain against cognitive decline.
Two prominent ‘brain-boosting’ diets which have emerged as a result of such research are the ‘MIND Diet’ and the ‘Mediterranean Diet’, both of which have been shown to boost brain power. The Mediterranean Diet involves involves increasing your consumption of vegetables, fish and nuts, reducing your intake of red meat, sweets and white bread and use of olive oil. It has been found to fight against cognitive decline as well as boosting brain power, with researchers in Spain finding that those who followed the diet performed better in the key areas of reasoning, attention, memory and language on cognitive tests than those who did not. Research into the MIND Diet, meanwhile, found that followers had, on average, the brain function of people 7.5 years younger than themselves.
For more information on what to eat to boost your brain power, see our blog here.
The relationship between exercise and brain health has been well researched, and the evidence suggesting that exercising regularly boosts your brain power is substantial.
Regular exercise has been found to increase productivity levels, with a study in the International Journal of Workplace Health Management, for example, finding that people who exercised on work days were a massive 23% more productive than those who did not.
Working out regularly can also improve your memory as proven by research which found people performed 20% better on memory tests following exercise.
Exercise also helps to beat stress and clear the brain which improves mental focus and encourages clear thinking.
To maximise the benefits exercise can bring to the brain, it's recommended you aim for 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a minimum of 3 times per week.
For an in-depth guide to the specific exercises which impact brain power the most, see our blog on the topic here.
Loneliness is bad for the brain. Studies researching the impact social isolation on has on the elderly, for example, has demonstrated that it hastens cognitive decline and can shorten life expectancy. Conversely, however, being social has been found to be good for the brain. Tests in animals have long suggested that, as a professor from Michigan University noted, ‘the size of the brain has been correlated with the size of the social groups the animals typically form’. Research suggests that this can also be applied to humans.
A study of 2,249 California women published in the American Journal of Public Health found a connection between people who maintained large social networks into old age and a significant reduction in their risk of dementia as well as delayed or prevented cognitive impairment.
Scientists are not yet sure quite how social relationships increase our brain power, but the evidence is undeniable that regular social interaction is a key part of maintaining effective cognitive function.
Actively training your brain through cognitive tests, brain games and activities like crosswords and quizzes is another proven way to boost your brain power.
The Cochrane Library, a scientifically rigorous, collaborative study in the UK analysed 15 studies to date, involving 718 men and women with Dementia and found that participants engaging in such activities improved memory and thinking test scores and could even help delay increases in the severity of dementia symptoms. Scientists at Cambridge University, meanwhile, found that brain games could improve memory and brain function. The effects of regular brain training using software on an ipad were tested on 42 patients with mild cognitive impairment. The participants demonstrated improvements in their ‘episodic’ memory through bettering their scores by up to 40% after playing brain game two hours per week for a month.
The FINGER study recommends taking part daily in activities specifically designed to challenge and stimulate the brain.
For a range of fun and stimulating brain games and personalised brain training routines, try the free MindMate App.
Sleep has arguably the biggest effect on day-to-day brain health of all the aforementioned lifestyle elements. The shocking effects of poor quality sleep on brain function are emphasised in a report by RAND research group which found that between lost work and poor performance at work from lack of sleep, the U.S. alone loses $411 billion each year as a result of the poor sleep patterns of employees. In fact, as ‘Sleep Doctor’ Michael J. Breus says: “It’s difficult to identify a cognitive skill that isn’t affected by sleep, and compromised by sleep deprivation.” According to the AARP, to maximise brain power during your waking day, it’s imperative to get between 7 and 8 hours of sleep every night. Routine is also important, with some studies also suggesting irregular sleeping patterns can be just as damaging for daily brain function as sleep deprivation.