Robert Frost once quipped that:
“The brain is a wonderful organ; it starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office.”
And while Robert of course meant it as a joke, he was right about one thing — the brain is a wonderful organ. It’s one of the most complicated objects known to man, with 86 billion neurons and hundreds of billions of nerve fibers.
However, despite the delicate and complex nature of our brains, we often don’t do much to make sure it’s functioning properly, or to make sure we’re setting it up for long term health. In fact, you may have some habits that, left unchecked, could have serious consequences. These habits could actually damage your cognitive ability and increase your chances of developing complications like Alzheimer’s or dementia later in life.
So, if you’re wondering whether you’re setting your brain up for a long, healthy life, here are ten habits that might be causing your wonderful organ harm – and one habit that might actually be doing it quite a bit of good:
Not getting enough sleep poses huge risks both to your ability to function normally during the day but also to your long term brain health.
In the short term, if you’re experiencing sleep deprivation, you’ll probably feel groggy, have concentration issues, and mood swings. Over a long period of time, sleep deprivation leads to a host of ill effects such as hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack, and stroke.
To make sure you’re getting enough sleep and giving your brain all the rest it needs, make sure you turn off screens before bed. The light from phones and laptops can keep you awake longer than you might think, and cause you to lose sleep.
Also try setting up a regular routine of going to bed at the same time every night and waking up at the same time every morning. Getting in the habit of sleeping enough will help combat sleep deprivation.
Our brains thrive on physical activity. Staying sedentary may not seem like such a big deal in the short term, but it actually can lead to cognitive decline, grogginess, fatigue, and low-energy. Over a long time, it also leads to anxiety and depression and increases your risk of mortality, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, obesity, and more.
Incorporate more movement into your life by exercising regularly at home or at a gym, joining local sports teams, or taking a fitness class. If you have a job that requires you to sit for long periods of time, try getting a standing desk and taking regular breaks to exercise, stretch, and walk.
Smoking is a difficult habit to break, but the negative effects are so detrimental, your brain’s health is at serious risk if you continue. Most notably, smoking can lead to dementia further in life due to loss of brain volume. It also increases the risk of a host of different serious lung, heart, and body complications.
You can find many resources online to help you quit smoking, but understanding the real cost of how serious the ramifications of regular smoking is, is the first step to breaking the habit and helping your brain stay strong throughout your life.
Our bodies are made of mostly water, which means we need to keep hydrated in order to function properly. Not drinking enough water can cause headaches, dizziness and lightheadedness. Not drinking enough water over a long period of time can result in severe complications, such as seizures, swelling of the brain, kidney failure, shock, coma and even death.
Make sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day to avoid dehydration, and always bring water with you on hot days. If you struggle to keep up with drinking the right amount of water every day, experiment with taking a water bottle along with you wherever you go, or keep track of your water consumption in an app on your phone.
Not Enough Sunlight
Remaining indoors day-in and day-out is also detrimental to your brain’s health. The sun provides vitamin D, an essential vitamin for regulating many cellular functions in your body and maintaining energy throughout the day. Not getting enough vitamin D causes depression and fatigue, as well as potential cognitive decline later in life.
To make sure you get enough vitamin D, get outside during the day whenever possible to walk, exercise, or just enjoy the sun. If that’s not available to you, you can take vitamin D supplements to make sure you’re getting enough. Food like fish and dairy products are also great sources of vitamin D.
Over time, stress has a huge negative impact on your brain’s health. From causing headaches, anxiety, and depression, to insomnia, low energy, and cloudy thinking, stress takes a toll on your brain.
Occasional stress in life, of course, is normal and shouldn’t cause worry. However, if you’re feeling extremely stressed every day, you may want to consider restructuring your life to reduce the stress. Work conditions, environment, and social life may be the source of your stress, and figuring out exactly where it’s coming from is the first step to helping your brain stay in good shape.
What we put in our bodies is the fuel for our brains, so make sure you’re not in the habit of consuming too much junk food, sugar, or simply overeating.
Continual overeating and obesity has been linked to mental decline in older adults, and obesity has been shown to negatively affect memory, compared with normal weight individuals.
So instead of consuming foods like greasy hot dogs, candy, and french fries, incorporate more healthy brain foods like green, leafy vegetables, fish, berries, nuts, and whole grains.
Listening to loud music regularly also has a negative effect on your brain. Studies have shown that prolonged exposure to loud noise actually changes how the brain processes speech, which potentially increases difficulty in distinguishing speech sounds. Other research shows that loud music played on earphones causes hearing loss by having a similar effect on your nerves as multiple sclerosis.
Make sure the volume on your headphones is at a reasonable volume when listening to music, and if you attend concerts or go to clubs, bring along ear plugs to reduce the effect of the loud noises.
Humans are fundamentally social creatures. We thrive in groups and need emotional connection with friends and family. Social isolation has been linked to depression, poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular function and impaired immunity at any stage of life.
To avoid social isolation, join groups in your community, connect with friends regularly, and make the effort to meet new people. By staying connected, you’ll improve your brain function, mental health, and lower your risk of dementia.
Not Exercising (Your Brain)
To reduce your chances of cognitive decline, keep your brain healthy by exercising it! Not exercising your brain may lead to stagnation and complications down the road. Using cognitive training and working on things such as improving your memory, increasing your mental processing speed, and developing your reasoning and problem solving skills is a great way to keep your brain sharp.
…and a habit *NOT* to quit!
Some studies have shown that drinking coffee actually helps your brain, both in the short and long term.
When consumed in moderation, coffee improves mood, vigilance, learning, and reaction time. Used over a long period of time, coffee may even protect against brain conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
So that cup of coffee you look forward to every morning doesn’t have to go out the window. Your brain may need it!
If you’re wondering whether you’re setting your brain up for a long, healthy life, consider whether any of your daily habits might be causing you more harm than good. You just might be inadvertently increasing your risks of issues both now and later in life. Through our habits we can cause serious damage, but by developing healthy habits, we can give these wonderful organs of ours the best chance for a long, happy life.