Several companies promise to boost your brain power through products they offer. Experts aren’t so sure.
To date, the best evidence suggests that no “magic bullet” exists to improve brain functioning, according to a 2014 statement issued by the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Berlin’s Max Planck Institute for Human Development.
Instead, the statement — signed by dozens of scientists — concludes that “cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles.”
Fortunately, there are several free or cheap things you can do to fire up your mind. Following are seven scientifically supported steps to a better brain that mostly just cost you a little time.
1. Get some aerobic exercise
Exercise is perhaps the most thoroughly documented way to improve and protect brain health.
A study of more than 3,000 participants found that being at least moderately active at least once per week increases a person’s odds of “healthy aging” up to sevenfold — even for participants who wait until later in life to become active.
The study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2013, included cognitive abilities and mental health in its assessment of healthy aging.
The results of another study published that year — primarily involving researchers from the University of Texas Center for BrainHealth — “suggest that even shorter-term aerobic exercise can … reduce both the biological and cognitive consequences of aging to benefit brain health in sedentary adults.”
The researchers found that participants who got one hour of aerobic exercise three times per week had improved memory and higher blood flow in the hippocampus, the key brain region affected by Alzheimer’s disease.
2. Don’t smoke
When researchers set out to explore the connection between cardiovascular health and cognitive health, it wasn’t high blood pressure, cholesterol or weight that stood out among more than 8,700 participants over age 49.
“Smoking emerged as the most consistent predictor of cognitive decline,” the 2012 study in the British journal Age and Ageing states.
A 2003 study in the American Journal of Public Health of participants between ages 43 and 53 associated smoking more than 20 cigarettes per day with “cognitive impairment and decline in midlife.”
“Smokers who survive into later life may be at risk of clinically significant cognitive declines,” the study found.
3. Grab a cup of joe
A 2012 study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease that followed participants for a few years resulted in “the first direct evidence that caffeine/coffee intake is associated with a reduced risk of dementia or delayed onset.”
Caffeine “tricks” the brain, according to an article on Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Blog:
Not only is caffeine a brain stimulant, but it also blocks receptors for a chemical called adenosine, which normally prevents the release of excitatory brain chemicals. With adenosine out of the way, these brain-sparking chemicals can flow more freely — giving you a surge of energy and potentially improving mental performance and slowing age-related mental decline.
The results of a 2010 study associated mindfulness meditation aimed at stress reduction with increased concentrations of gray matter in certain parts of the brain.
The researchers, primarily from Harvard University, measured how meditation affected mindfulness factors. Study participants who meditated scored “significantly” higher on three factors:
- Acting with awareness (defined as “attending to one’s current actions, as opposed to behaving automatically or absent-mindedly”)
- Observing (“attending to or noticing internal and external stimuli, such as sensations, emotions, cognitions, sights, sounds, and smells”)
- Non-judging of inner experience (“refraining from evaluation of one’s sensations, cognitions and emotions”)
In 2013, psychiatrist Dr. Rebecca Gladding wrote in the magazine Psychology Today that meditation continues to improve the brain the longer a person meditates regularly:
You may be skeptical of the claims that it helps with all aspects of life. But, the truth is, it does … It enhances compassion, allows you to see things more clearly (including yourself) and creates a sense of calm and centeredness that is indescribable. There really is no substitute.
Mindfulness meditation can also improve sleep. To learn how to do it, check out “A Free 2-Step Solution For More Sleep.”
5. Read a book
A 2008 study published in the journal Age concluded that reading (and solving math problems) daily has “convincing immediate beneficial effects” on cognitive function, specifically on the brain’s processing speed and executive function.
Executive function includes the ability to manage time and attention, switch focus, plan and organize, remember details, and integrate past experience with present action.
A 2013 study published in the journal Neurology associated regular brain stimulation from activities like reading, visiting a library and writing letters with increased efficiency in certain parts of the brain.
6. Play action video games
A 2013 study by researchers at two London universities found that playing the real-time military strategy video game StarCraft can improve cognitive flexibility, which is essentially the ability to switch between or simultaneously manage multiple ideas or tasks.
Playing a full-map version of StarCraft, which involved two friendly bases and two enemy bases, proved “particularly effective” at boosting cognitive flexibility compared to playing a half-map version, which involved one of each type of base.
“The [full-map version] promotes more switching and coordination of cognitive resources, hallmarks of cognitive flexibility,” the study report states.
A 2014 study by researchers primarily from the University of Rochester in New York found that playing fast-paced action video games like Call of Duty can develop better perceptual templates.
“To sharpen its prediction skills, our brains constantly build models, or ‘templates,’ of the world,” University of Rochester research professor Daphne Bavelier explains in a press release. “The better the template, the better the performance. And now we know playing action video game actually fosters better templates.”
7. Learn a second language
The results of a study of a 2014 study of 853 participants published in the Annals of Neurology suggest that bilingualism improves brain function later in life, with reading skills, verbal fluency and general intelligence being most affected.
A 2013 case study of 648 patients with dementia, published in Neurology, found that being bilingual delayed the onset of dementia by four and a half years.