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Stop Believing These Brain Health Myths to Stay Sharp as You Age

The truth about your gray matter is not so black-and-white.

man clipping tree in shape of brain

There are lots of things you can do to keep your brain healthy as you age, and many of them overlap with the habits that keep your body in tip-top shape overall.

You know the drill: Get plenty of exercise (even if you’re just power walking!); prioritize good quality sleep; go easy on the alcohol and ditch smoking; keep your social life popping; and eat a diet full of whole grains and lots of vibrant produce.

But as straightforward as that sounds, there are still a lot of misconceptions out there. Ahead, we take a closer look at the biggest brain health myths, because the truth about your gray matter is not so black-and-white.

Join the conversation about brain health: Top experts shared their insights and advice in You & Your Brain, a web series hosted by Prevention, HealthyWomen, and the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement.

Myth: If your memory is bad, too bad.

Mythbuster: Even if your middle name is Forgetful, you can sharpen your memory. Crosswords are a classic way to get brain cells firing, says Gary Small, M.D., behavioral health physician in chief at Hackensack Meridian Health. Even better is trying out a new, slightly challenging hobby (say, learning a new language). A study of older adults found that it greatly improved episodic memory.

Physical activity also helps—aerobic exercise in particular boosts memory and blood flow to the brain. A study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found a 47% improvement in memory scores in people with memory issues who did aerobic exercise for a year, compared with minimal changes for those who stretched instead.

Want an in-the-moment solution? Try the Look, Snap, Connect method. First, focus on your five senses (What do you see? Smell? Feel?). Then take a mental picture of what you need to remember and consciously connect it to a story or a meaningful detail or word. “The biggest reason people don’t remember is that they’re distracted,” Dr. Small says, and this method keeps you present.

Myth: Ginkgo biloba can boost your brainpower.

Mythbuster: Studies simply don’t back this up. The same is true for vitamin E, though some studies have shown that it might slow functional decline in people who already have Alzheimer’s disease. Nutrition does play a role in brain health, but it’s better to focus on healthy whole foods than overhyped supplements.

Take fish, for example: A study of people older than 65 showed that those who ate fish for even one meal a week had a higher volume of gray matter in the hippocampus (part of the brain that’s essential for memory). The Mediterranean diet—which leans heavily on fish, veggies, fruit, whole grains, and healthy fats like nuts and olive oils—“appears to delay cognitive impairment and improve longevity,” says James Mastrianni, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Memory Center at the University of Chicago Medicine.

And research suggests that berries may help slow cognitive decline, possibly because of their high level of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory flavonoids.

Myth: Some people’s brains function just fine on four hours of sleep.

Mythbuster: Even if you feel OK, the brain begs to differ. Almost all adults need at least seven hours each night. That’s because “when you’re asleep, you’re not just resting,” Dr. Small says. For one thing, your brain is busy forming new memories and consolidating older ones. If you get a good night’s rest, you’ll remember better what happened the day before, which is crucial for learning.

Sleep is also when you’re “clearing away the buildup of toxic proteins that accumulate when you’re awake,” Dr. Mastrianni adds. One study found that the spaces between brain cells get bigger during sleep, letting the brain rid itself of waste products more easily. And getting enough restful sleep (not broken up by multiple awakenings) has been shown in animal studies to be protective against Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. Mastrianni says. If the usual tricks don’t help you nod off, talk to your doctor for more targeted tips.

Myth: Dementia is inevitable—especially if it’s in your family.

Mythbuster: Aging is the biggest risk factor for dementia, but aging alone doesn’t cause it. Dr. Mastrianni points to growing evidence that lifestyle habits such as staying active, eating a healthy diet, and nurturing social connections can reduce the risk of cognitive decline or delay its development. (A 2020 Lancet Commission report found that 40% of all dementia cases could be traced to risk factors like alcohol use, social isolation, physical inactivity, and high blood pressure.)

Something called “cognitive reserve” also plays a role: Your brain’s ability to adapt to challenges helps shape how it ages, which may partly explain why people with more education are less likely to have dementia.

And while having a parent or sibling with dementia ups your odds of developing it by roughly 15% to 23%, says Dr. Mastrianni, some experts think part of the family risk might not be genetic at all, but rather the fact that families tend to share similar socioeconomic backgrounds, educational opportunities, and lifestyle habits.

Myth: Dementia is an equal-opportunity problem.

Mythbuster: Race and gender—and the complicated ways in which those impact health equity and access to care—mean dementia doesn’t affect everyone equally. A variety of social and environmental disparities can play significant roles, says Rebecca Edelmayer, Ph.D., director of scientific engagement for the Alzheimer’s Association. These include differences in level of education, rates of poverty, and exposure to discrimination and adversity as well as rates of high blood pressure and diabetes (two dementia risk factors).

Recent studies have shown that non-Hispanic Black Americans are 1.5 to 1.9 times as likely to have dementia as non-Hispanic white Americans, and Hispanics are 1.5 times as likely to have it. Meanwhile, women make up two-thirds of people with Alzheimer’s. Women tend to do better than men on verbal dementia screening tests, which can make early diagnosis more challenging. Especially if you are in one or more of the above groups or have other individual risk factors, be sure to get screened early, Edelmayer says.

This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue of Prevention.

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