The brain is like a muscle. To keep our muscles healthy we go to the gym, eat nutritious food and maintain our weight. But how do we give our brain a workout? To find out, we asked Anil Nasta, M.D., a disease area partner at Roche Diagnostics, to share some of his ideas. At Roche, Nasta specializes in Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, and he has worked with patients as a primary care physician for more than a decade.
“The brain is like any other part of our body,” Nasta said. “It requires proactive maintenance – and a balanced approach. There’s no one simple trick.” That said, Nasta did recommend eight activities that are especially beneficial for brain health. “These ideas are mostly from my experience as a practitioner,” he said. “I’ve found they’ve helped my patients.” Some of them may surprise you.
“Travel stimulates the brain,” Nasta said. “Seeing things that are different than our day-to-day life – new landscapes, cultures and people – contributes positively.” If you don’t have the resources or ability to travel, even reading about or looking at images of faraway places can help. Studies have shown that travel can enhance empathy, attention, energy and focus, too.
“Contrary to popular belief, we are not so good at multitasking,” Nasta said. “We’re better at doing one thing at a time.” Research backs up that idea. Only 2% to 2.5% of the population can effectively multitask. In fact, multitasking can cause brain shrinkage and short-term memory loss, not to mention stress. On the other hand, focusing on one task at a time without distraction can increase retention of information, productivity and well-being. “It’s all about being in the present moment,” Nasta said.
“Listening to music is one way to focus on the present,” Nasta said. Music stimulates areas of the brain responsible for mood, memory and movement, according to a report from AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health. It gets different parts of the brain working together and facilitates social interactions, which can improve our quality of life.
Interacting with others is a boon for the brain. “Get out of the house,” Nasta said. “As social creatures, we crave interactions with others.” And as we age, socialization can help lower the risk of dementia. A 2017 study from Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine found that 80-year-olds with the mental agility of 50-year-olds had one thing in common: satisfying relationships with friends.
How’s your sleep hygiene? Do you go to bed at the same time each night, keep electronics out of the bedroom and reduce caffeine intake before bed? “All these things contribute to sleeping well,” Nasta said. “And you need to sleep well. To function properly, your brain needs adequate sleep, especially as you age.” Sleep can, in fact, have a profound impact on brain health. Structural and physiological changes that occur in the brain during sleep affect our capacity for learning and memory. So it’s worth it to actively create a routine that promotes a healthy night’s sleep.
We hear a lot about meditation and yoga, but what are they exactly? Meditation involves paying close attention to the present moment – especially our thoughts, emotions and sensations. Yoga involves meditation and adds physical postures and regulated breathing. “Yoga and meditation can contribute to sleep health,” Nasta noted. “They also improve blood pressure, lower blood sugars, help us control our weight and improve our ability to concentrate. The net benefit of those improvements is better brain health.”
Studies support that idea. Research shows that meditation may slow, stall or even reverse changes that take place in the brain due to normal aging. And a review of studies shows that practicing yoga may enhance brain functions.
Puzzles are good for the brain, too. “The idea is to do something outside of the routine – something that challenges the brain to work in new ways,” said Nasta. “Looking for connecting pieces requires concentration and improves short-term memory and problem solving.” He recommends old-school table puzzles, crosswords and even Wordle. Studies show that the act of putting pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together can improve cognition and visual-spatial reasoning. It can also spark your imagination and creativity. Are puzzles on devices OK? “Sure,” Nasta said. “Some things are only offered on a screen. Consider the net benefit.”
This is one of the best ways to take a proactive approach to your health and wellness. Your doctor knows the right steps to take and can give you tips and ideas like the ones Nasta shares here. Seeing your doctor can also prevent an emerging problem from worsening. “As humans we want to hear good things about our health,” he said. “We don’t want to get news about something scary going on. But delaying an evaluation from your primary care doctor comes with significant risks.”
If you or a loved one has symptoms such as memory loss, Nasta recommends asking the doctor for screening tests to evaluate memory, as well as bloodwork. “Sometimes an infection or depression may be causing the problem,” he said.
Another reason to talk to your doctor is this: Your physician may be able to spot risk factors and early signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Soon, your doctor also will have access to new tools that offer hope for early diagnosis.
"Each of us is unique, and our health is individualistic,” Nasta said. “That’s why we all need to get a general understanding of our health and review strategies with our doctor.” How does that impact brain health? “It’s simple,” he said. “When you take care of your body, you also take care of your brain.”
Anil Nasta, M.D., is a disease area partner at Roche Diagnostics. He specializes in the central nervous system and focuses on Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Nasta, who has a background in primary care medicine, has practiced at various hospitals throughout the United States. He’s one of the people at Roche who supports diagnosing diseases like Alzheimer’s earlier and changing how they affect the brain – not just treating symptoms.